Land - The Lack of the Irish

james armstrong james36army at
Wed Aug 27 14:57:39 BST 2008

"The earth belongeth to  the Lord,
And all that it contains."
"Except the Western Highlands,
"Which belongeth to Mc Braynes"

Land - the Lack of the Irish

Don’t be put off  by  the title of Kevin Cahill's book  "Who own the World?" nor by its  weight .  You may not desperately need to know when you reach page 602  that Kiribati, that well known island in the North Pacific,  is part of the  Commonwealth  and that its 200,256 acres,  unknown to the estimated   83,000 inhabitants who enjoy mostly tribal tenure, are owned absolutely by Elizabeth Windsor-Mountbatten of Windsor, Berkshire under an (illegal) feudal law devised around 1066.  
However readers may wake up to  learn that Kiribati has a land registry  which is 95% complete  and compare it with that of England and Wales which after 83 years is 50% complete and where registration is not mandatory, and where  the information is  dispersed in 24  centres .   
Readers might be stimulated to ask,
 " Is there an interest group who want to keep details of the massive UK land holdings secret? Who are they?  Has this interest group  such enormous power as to  frustrate the will of the legislators who devised the land registry? Do they use this monopoly of bulk land ownership in other ways?
Is  land exempt from the property tax we call Council Tax?  Do landowners  benefit from  EU handouts  which townspeople don't  get?  How do they benefit and in which ways are non land owners deprived and  disadvantaged?  Someone might even ask, 
    "Is there a desperate need to widen access to, and use of  land?  If there is such a need.  what is the best system we can devise to meet the  unprecedented needs of  our  complex society  in 2008?

The first 281 pages of Kevin's book raise such questions.   The next 350 odd are a country by country gazetteer and analysis of the landownership systems  there.
The narrative is in the  first section.
We learn that no man in England or Wales  owns his house and  home nor Farmer Jones his farm or field.  The same  Elizabeth ll alone holds the absolute title. What we take for ownership is not absolute but  a legal construct or fiction  -'An interest  in the estate of land'. 
This apparent small difference  allows room for  all sorts of  nasty things..

Kevin is a genial Irishman  impassioned by the injustice which condemned over a million Irish small- holders to death in the 1840's. They were ejected from their land, and their houses torn down when the  crops failed and they could no longer  pay the money, called 'rent' for the land they were said to 'tenant'.
Malnourished  and  homeless they died by the  road side as witnessed by Henry George.
 Here we have our own holocuast, nearer to home  but less publicised. (Why?)  The cause  was not   the weather nor the potato blight , but landowners using the law which gave them the right  to eject the starving
from the land. While this was happening  grain and other foods in cartloads , on its way to be exported,  passed within  the gaze of  the starving tenantry. (Amarteus  Sen experiencing   the Bengal famine of 1942 came to the same conclusion as Kevin. Not blight nor hunger  nor climate kills people, but bad  law and in-humanity.

Three alternative legal arrangements  with regard to land can be contrasted...
1 In Ireland,  law  follows  the feudal practice, a hangover from the time of the British , where 
The State, once the Queen , now the  Irish Government , has sole ultimate ownership of all land.
( The 'gazeteer' demonstrates that as a relic of the British Empire this feudal system  is common throughout the world) 
2 In USA , on the contrary , the allodial system protects absolute title to land by the purchaser. The freehold is absolutely free.   
England has no constitution  and ' the people' are curiously absent from the national anthem, but on the US constitution Kevin writes,
"  The American constitution , referred to by the  (Irish  Law Reform) Commission, points the way. That constitution names the authors of the state, its architects and constructors, in that most memorable of phrases,  "We, the people….."
The catastrophic failure of the  feudal system in Ireland was repeated in Russia   where it allowed the government legally to collectivise the farms, as also in China by Mao.  It could happen, legally,  in UK. The  Prime Minister in parliament exercises absolute power. This  leaves open the possibility that the legal 'truth' and  feudal fiction by which the Queen absolutely owns the  land of Britain (and that of all the Kiribatis of this world) could be used by a  Prime Minister who could assume this right . This leaves  room for human  catastrophies such as took place in Ireland some one hundred and sixty years ago.
 (Remember the British Government had major responsibility for both the Bengal and the Irish famines)  

 There is a further  alternative which it would be nice to have  Kevin explore.
3 Based on the acknowledgment  that the earth is our only resource,  that land is  necessary for all human existence , it is indefensible to enable any person , firm  or entity as an individual to deny access to the use of this land to any other. The idea of  title to the land  itself,  is anathema.  What remains is the need to make equitable arrangements  to allow  access to land i.e. to share the use of the land- its usufruct.
This would  re-inforce the community,  not theindividual,  which had the sole right to arrange the allocation.         'Mother earth' is the expression which gives religious sanction to this concept. 
Buying or  selling your mother is anathema. 
                                                                      'The earth belongeth to  the Lord,
                                                                        And all that it contains." 
is another expression of this concept. 
                                                                       "Except the Western Highlands,   
                                                                       "Which belongeth to Mc Braynes"  
 re-inforces  how  this idea has been rejected..
One of the aims of bulk landowners as a group is to destroy , under the guise of competition and individiuality,  any sense of community.   So we vote away our right to self government, (overlook our right to self-build our houses),  take no direct part in government which makes the laws , and  acquiesce in the withdrawl of 'we, the people…' from decision making. .

To return to the text , a  current topic addressed by Kevin  is the commission drafting a new Irish constitution. The need is to  bring law in relation to land, up to date, so that it meets the day to day requirements of people.  Its role is not  to  provide opportunities for lawyers. The Irish Commission  are  muddle-headed lawyers. Irish  people know clearly what they want., and it is not 'an interest in the estate of the land'.    In setting out the case Kevin helps clarify the issues which a modern, equitable system of land law must meet.
          The advantages we see of an allodial system such as in US are that the people  constitute the state 
(which seems logical in a democracy), and no-one, neither monarchy, government , nation or state has superior rights over people,  nor can they use land and legal fictions based on land to exploit people (Which exploitation Kevin traces back in  St Augustine's analysis.)  There is a need to change, shown by  his chapter heading - "Ireland- serfs not citizens"  The disadvantages we see,  are that   no changes to the legal system alone  can stop exploitation.   To bowdlerise   the inscription on Marx's tomb, "It is not sufficient to describe the system, but to change it"
To  change the malpractice which Kevin traces throughout history, a change re-defining ownership is not enough when the problem is  the malicious and covert exploitation of the majority by the minority by means of monopolising land and restricting useful access.   
  Ownership whether absolute or  feudal, is based on competition and exclusion. The proposed allodial  ownership could leave the plight of the majority who are landless open to further exploitation.

The alternative which we suggest, of usership, also has its difficulties. Its advantages are  summed up in the  phrase "use it or lose it"  and since one person can only use so much land,  that one person cannot use the competitive motive as a means of  exploitation.   We suggest this addresses the main problem, it limits the opportunities to exercise the malice of one man towards another . An added  advantage is that it would  solve Kevin's problem which applies not only to  the Irish - social division into landowner and serf , which then spills out and  ossifies into destructive wider social, economic and political divisions.
 The main disavantage of a legal system based on usership is the difficulty of devising an equitable means of allocating and reallocating land , but that can be overcome.  A study is needed on that question.
The main trouble I find with Kevin's book is that each chapter is so  thought-provoking that I find difficulty   progressing to the next one.  When you finally reach page 622 the bibliography  then introduces you to new  books - Powelson , 'The story of land,'   Chardin, "The Phenomenon of Man,"  and the  prince of land taxers,, Henry George 's "Progress and Poverty"… and so it goes.   James A. Dorchester      27th August.


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