Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Do we know what change looks like, and if we do, is it what we really, really want?

Posted by Jason O on Feb 16, 2020 in Irish Politics

I have in my gut a festering fear about Irish democracy. It’s a simple one, and it’s that many, possibly most Irish voters are hard-wired to be permanently discontent with their government. That our politicians are forever failing our voters because our voters don’t actually know what it is that would make them actually satisfied, or even partially satisfied, with their government.

Yes, I know how patronising it sounds. It’s not an indictment of voter intelligence, by the way. It’s a mixture of the consumer society we live in, where The Next Thing is always what we crave, and the permeation of our political system by marketing techniques that promise an emotional satisfaction that politicians simply cannot deliver.

Some politicians, that is. The decent ones who are genuinely trying to do their best for the society they represent. There are politicans who do emotionally satisfy their followers, of course. President Trump does, so does President Erdogan, and Prime Minister Orban. Partially by delivery, but primarily by keeping alive the fear of The Other that keeps their supporters always emotionally aroused. Protecting one from Them always delivers an emotional satisfaction of sorts

Irish politicians are perpetually over-promising, campaigning on such vague pledged outcomes that they can never deliver in the minds of many of their voters. Fine Gael (and Labour) from 2011-2020 turned the economy around, created thousands of jobs and through those jobs (something often forgotten) created the tax revenue that funds billions and billions in social welfare, housing and healthcare. Both were punished at the subsequent ballots for lying, which both did on water and property taxes, and also for not meeting the emotional promises they made.

Ah, but what about housing and healthcare? We all know that they are the defining issues, and they have failed to deliver. That’s correct. A&E on a Saturday night feels like a different country, not the rich Ireland of Silicon Quay or Terminal 2 sweeping new motorways but a failing country where nothing seems to work.

That’s the crux of the question though. We are being told that this was a change election, but was it? President Macron in France is currently suffering unpopularity from the reality that French voters have paradoxically demanded change without change. Is it possible that the fear from most Irish governing parties up to this point is that Irish voters are not much different from their French counterparts. Yes, they say they want change, right up to the moment you attempt to implement it, and then they turn on you. Change yes, but not THAT change.

They demand radical changes to Healthcare, but will they side with a reforming government against public sector unions and their families who oppose change except in an increased pay-packet?

Will they support a reforming government building much needed new housing actually on their street?

That’s the problem right there. Irish ministers of all political colours have proven themselves incapable of actually rallying voters to them when they attempt unpopular but unnecessary change. Why is that?

One reason is certainly a combination of lack of belief and imagination that they can actually deliver. Ministers who promise that closing small rural hospitals will be accompanied by air ambulances to rapidly transport patients then look like guppy fish when asked where are the actual air ambulances?

Our leaders need to take risks and show a bit of imagination. Want to close a small rural hospital? Grand. Before you do it, land a dozen brand new fully-crewed fully-operational shiny air ambulances in the old hospital car park, and offer the locals a lift there and then to the replacement regional hospital. Then maybe they might believe you.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are at a combined 42% in first preference support, which is what FF alone got in 2007. It’s fair to say the days of caution and inertia, of fearing to displease anybody and therefore please nobody are coming to a close. It’s time to take risks for change.

 
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How to use your ballot most effectively.

One of the great mysteries of the age is that we have exported Aonghus McAnally’s “The Lyrics Board” (remember that?) to more countries than we have our electoral system, the Single Transferable Vote. 

It’s a funny one, because STV is probably the most empowering voting system on the planet. It’s fair in that it is reasonably proportional, it lets geographic areas have a clear representative, and it allows voters to personally choose their representatives. 

It also allows voters to vote the way human beings actually vote, as opposed to the weird “My party is perfect, your party should be executed for crimes against decency” approach many party hacks seem to sign up to. 

STV lets voters really like those guys, hate those other guys and meh the rest.

It also has a built-in feature that almost no other voting system has. It permits you to vote for your favorite candidate and stick the electoral knife Agatha Christie deep into the back of that one candidate you really really want to keep out.     

It is by far the best voting system in the world to watch as a spectator support. Indeed, I’m surprised RTE don’t release an election count highlight DVD after every election. 

The first count result is not always the absolute decider of all the winners, and transfers allow for last minute Millenium Falcon On Its Side Speeding Through Closing Blast Doors drama comebacks. If the CNN were covering our elections, we’d have theme music for everything from the first count to transfers to the final seat, and a Wolf Blitzer (Politics nerds will get this reference) hologram live from the count centre in Laois-Offaly. 

If you’re a sadist, it’s the political system designed to taunt and dangle false hope in front of politicians who thought their seat was safe/lost and are now mocked often down to the last count. If you asked Schrodinger to design a voting system, he’d come up with this.  

It’s a voting system Dante would have loved, save for the fact that Lucifer would probably look at Irish politics and thinks “Eh, no thanks lads, even I have to look at myself in the mirror occasionally. Also: is that RHI scheme thing still open? Actually, how did those DUP canvassers even find our front door?”    

I bring it up because every time there is an election I get a flurry of messages, online and personally, from friends, relatives and readers asking how to vote. 

Most political cronies I know are the same. 

It’s an indictment, by the way, as to how badly civics was taught (or not) in our schools, and also the failure of FG and Labour to deliver the much-promised electoral commission tasked with running and educating all things election. I never saw a copy of the constitution until I found one by accident in a local newsagent, and bought it, which is also an indictment of my sadly un-misspent youth.  

People do know how to vote, but it’s the subtleties of the Single Transferable Vote that give rise to all sorts of myths and questions. Here’s a few of them. 

  1. Cast your first preference for the person you really want. This sounds so obvious, but it’s true. Don’t try to second guess other voters. Yes, parties try to get people to vote tactically, and if your party winning an extra seat is your primary goal then vote tactically. But remember, in the great majority of constituencies the people who come first to fifth, depending on how many seats are in the constituency, tend to fill the seats in the end. First preferences matter the most, because they are the only vote that will definitely be counted.
  2. You decide where your vote goes, not the parties. A clear preference must be visible to the returning officer before he transfers a vote. Your ballot paper is written permission from you to the returning officer who to transfer to and who not to.  
  3. Your preferences cannot affect your later preferences. This is another perennial that seems to have emerged from the mists of psephology. When a lower preference has been reached (2,3,4 etc) it means that the candidate beforehand has been either elected or eliminated for having the least votes available, and so is out of competition for preferences. 
  4. Do not write anything other than numbers on your ballot paper, as anything else may be taken as a sign of political intimidation: that you have been bullied into voting for a certain candidate and have put a mark on the ballot to prove to count observers that you have done what you promised.  
  5. If you want to really try to stop an individual getting elected, give a preference to every other candidate. This means that your vote is available to help any candidate fighting your most hated candidate. The more preferences you leave blank means the less help your vote can potentially be to other candidates. If there is a group of candidates you hate equally, leave them all blank. It means that none of them can help stop any other of them.
  6. No, spoiled or blank ballots do not “automatically go to the government”. I hear this every year, and I have no idea where it comes from.    

We, the people of Malta, and Australia are the only people lucky enough to use STV in national elections. It has its flaws: it makes TDs get a version of the bends if they’re out of their constituency longer than 12 hours, and obsess about the effect of fairies on municipal road planning, but as voter choice goes, it’s hard to beat. 

 
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A Thumbnail Guide to Election 2020: The See-Nothing Party Man.

Envelope? What envelope?

Envelope? What envelope?

He’s not personally corrupt. Oh, he’s sat down with developers and followed up their queries with planners, but he does that for ordinary punters too. Nothing wrong with asking a legitimate question for a constituent, as long as you don’t try to get the planner to do anything wrong, and he doesn’t.

Elected to the council after the carry-on of the 1980s and 1990s, he doesn’t get approached for “favours”. He’s the new breed of the party’s councillor who wrinkles his nose at reading about yet another former party elected rep being done for corruption.

Yet don’t ask him to fight corruption. Don’t ask him to report anything he thinks is dodgy, and he sees enough of it, to the Guards or anyone else, because that’s just not done. He’s been known to turn on his heel walking into a toilet at the the council, when he sees a colleague receiving “papers” from a developer just before a vote.

In fact, that’s the thing. He actually spends time trying to avoid learning about corruption, because he can’t report what he doesn’t know.

“Trains to where, judge? Auschwitz? I just set the timetables. Couldn’t tell you what was in them. Was it strange that they were coming back empty? Do you know, I never thought to ask.”

 
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A Thumbnail Guide to Election 2020: A guide to Irish parties for non-Irish readers.

Posted by Jason O on Jan 27, 2020 in Irish Politics

Every now and then, especially around Irish general elections, I’m asked to explain the Irish party system to those from outside the country. Despite my own political bias, I’ll try and do a fair description of each.

Fine Gael: The governing party, led by Leo Varadkar. A slightly more socially liberal version of Angela Merkel’s CDU. Broadly centre-right (but not ideological), pro-business, pro-European and with a wide urban middle-class and rural large farmer base.

Fianna Fail: the traditional party of government. Centrist, very pragmatic, moving from left to right as needed but reluctant to make major change and has both conservative and liberal wings. Has support from most classes on an equal basis. Comparable to the old French Gaullist party or the old Chicago Democratic Party. Nationalist but not exclusionary about it.

Sinn Fein: the political wing of the Provisional IRA. A party in flux, on a journey from supporting armed insurrection to democracy. Pretends to be more left wing than it is. Has both socially conservative and liberal wings, and strong rural and urban working class base. Attracts many voters that would vote populist right on the continent but is firmly anti-racist.

Labour/Social Democrats: Social democrats responsible for most of the great liberal reforms of the last quarter century yet rarely rewarded by the voters. Struggling to stay relevant as parties on left and right cannibalize its votes. Comparable to Labour under Ed Miliband. the Social Democrats are a tiny offshoot of the Labour party also struggling to define themselves, especially from Labour.

Green Party: You know yourself. Comparable to the Lib Dems in the UK in that they became the receptacle for every angry voter with a grievance who then became livid when the party actually entered government in 2007 and was subsequently annihilated the following election.

The “Alphabet Left”: a collection of various Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party (Former Militant) deputies forever falling out and reforming. Unwilling to join a government unless it is a government of the pure left. Corbynistas but with much more contempt for each other. Currently called Solidarity/Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit/RISE.

Independents: Ireland has a rich tradition of Independent deputies elected from both left and right or because they were loyal members of a party right up to when it refused to give them a nomination. They tend to be bought off with deals for local spending in return for their parliamentary support.

 
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A Thumbnail Guide to Election 2020: The Unlistenable Politician.

pol books2Repost: Every time you see or hear him about to speak, you give him a chance. He’s an important senior politician, a leader in our country. His opinion matters.

Forty five seconds in, you’re flicking over to something else. Anything else. It’s not that you disagree with him or what he’s saying, after all, there’s some pleasure to be had screaming “You’re a f**king eejit!” at the telly or the radio. That would mean he’s actually said something.

No, it’s worse than that.

Every single time he says nothing. Every single time. He talks and talks and you can hear the cogs in the brain lining up the next trite offend-nobody vague platitude into the breech to be fired at us.

He’s like a football pundit who doesn’t really have any interest in football.

It’s not lies. It’s not offensive. It’s just nothing. It’s all a bit of a chore, one of those offshore gas drilling platforms that has to burn off the excess gas every while, only with him it’s words, all safe and harmless and meaningless.

We’d actually be better served if he just read out funny words he came across in the dictionary, or told us about an episode of  “Elementary” he watched recently, or rolled up a shirt sleeve and showed us a rash and asked us what caused that, do we think?

 
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A Thumbnail Guide to Election 2020: The Curse of the Shoo-In Candidate.

pol books2It’s a uniquely Irish concept. In other countries, parties brag about how well their candidate is doing. Not in Ireland. In Ireland, candidates, especially ones defending a seat, play up how desperate things are, how bad the campaign is going, how “the seat is gone”. There is nothing a candidate hates more than people saying she’s a dead cert, because in Ireland that’s political death. More people have gone into an election as the dead cert and come out with less votes than Gary Glitter at a National Association of Creches AGM.

It’s all to do with the second guessing poker nature of the Single Transferable Vote system. STV is a logical, rational and fair voting system which gives voters a wider choice than almost any voting system in the world. It asks voters to select their candidates in order of preference. As a result, there’s little chance of wasting one’s vote on an unelectable candidate.

But it never expected that it would have to deal with the Irish psyche, and voters who don’t just consider who they’d like to elect, but who they think other people are going to elect too, and so discount their own vote and transfer their vote to their second choice in the hope of getting a second bite of the cherry. It’s hardly surprising, as this is exactly the same way Irish people choose their third level educational future through the Central Applications Office. They’re asked to pick what course they really want, and instead enter what course they think they’ll get, and are then disappointed when they miss the course they actually wanted in the first place. They then vote the same way.

As a result, you have party voters who decide that Party X’s candidate A is a definite, and so instead gives their first preference to candidate A’s running mate, to give her a chance at taking a second seat for the party. The problem is that large numbers of candidate A’s loyal voters are all thinking the same thing, and so the running mate gets elected and candidate A is surprisingly defeated to the shock of all, with voters looking blankly at each other with a “Jaysus, if I’d only known. Sure everybody I know said they wanted him in!”

How do you prevent it? Vote for your favourite candidate first. It really is that simple. Really.

 
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A Thumbnail Guide to Election 2020: The Reckless Voter.

dynamiteYes, of course he’s entitled to his opinion, and yes, to his vote. But he’s not entitled to our respect. But let’s be clear who he actually is: he’s not The Voter Who Voted For Someone You Disagree With. That’s healthy, that’s democracy.

No, this guy is worse. This is the guy who listens to Trump, and knows what he’s saying doesn’t make sense, but it makes him feel good and so he votes for him anyway. Who hears a presidential candidate call on supporters to beat up opponents and thinks “Well, he didn’t tell them to beat up me, so it’s OK.”

Or she, on seeing Bernie getting defeated by Hillary, vows not to vote in a tantrum to “teach Hillary a lesson”. Because Trump will defend the rights that Bernie wasn’t able to?

Or votes to sabotage an EU-Ukraine trade deal not because they care about Ukraine one way or the other but because they just want to lash out.

These are the people who let the darkness in. The political plate spinners who look at all the broken crockery around them and always have someone else to blame. The people democratic theory fails, because it assumes that people will always vote in their own best interest.

They who voted for HIM because he was really tough on the Communists, and when Jewish friends asked them have they not heard what he says about Jews they go: “Meh: he’ll get rid of the Commies. Then we’ll worry about it.”

These are the people who go back to the firework after the fuse goes out, because it “hardly ever goes off”.

 
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Irish Independent: Let’s make election debates actually worthwhile.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 17, 2019 in Irish Politics
Length matters…

https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/jason-omahony-whoever-wants-to-be-taoiseach-has-to-pass-test-of-kept-promises-38761945.html

 
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Farewell to “A President for Europe”

Posted by Jason O on Dec 7, 2019 in Irish Politics

Alas, but it seems that my European presidential election boardgame “A President for Europe” just doesn’t have the appeal to make it viable to produce. Thanks to those of you who did pledge to the IndiGoGo, it was genuinely much appreciated.

I’m not devastated, I’ll be honest. My desire at the beginning of all this was to create a boardgame that I would enjoy playing, and we succeeded in that. Certainly, at the various testing sessions the game was enjoyed, and I also want to thank the ridiculously talented (and great fun) Karen Pappin who turned my childlike paint and half potato renderings into really fabulous game materials. She also did all the heavy lifting in terms of dealing with printers, suppliers etc.

IndieGoGo was basically a dipping of the toe in the marketplace, and the water was just too chilly to proceed. Could I revisit it in the future? Quite possibly. There’s a trend in tabletop games (Yes, that’s what they’re called now) towards card-based games that don’t need a board at all, and that certainly would make the game cheaper to produce, although it would involve some redesign. I also think that the format could easily be changed from EU politics to national (Taoiseach!The boardgame) to even intergalactic (A President for the Federation! Will Vulcan swing the election?). Any games manufacturers looking for ideas drop me an email.

 
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The Housing Czar: a political fantasy.

Posted by Jason O on Oct 28, 2019 in Irish Politics

It is 2029, and the morning news bulletin reports that the Chief Executive of the State Housing Agency, known in the media as “the Housing Czar”, is finishing her ten year term at 12 noon today. Already a crowd of protestors has augmented the usual crowd demonstrating outside her modest home in south Dublin. The dozen Gardai usually stationed there, some suspected to be armed given the not infrequent death threats, have also been reinforced by members of the Public Order Squad parked discreetly around the corner.  The czar, a divorced 55 year old mother of two, architect, engineer and professor in urban planning before her appointment steps out of her front door to the usual cat cries and abuse, a significant amount of it sexually orientated. 

No one throws anything this time, and her Garda driver and bodyguard secure her in the vehicle before inching out of the driveway. Protestors hammer the roof of the car despite the best efforts of the Garda to keep them back. 

She avoids eye contact with the protestors, studying her tablet. She genuinely doesn’t notice them that much, so used to this behaviour for at least eight years of her term. Her children will be brought to school later by the au pair, as they have found that they receive less abuse when she is not present. 

The last time a protestor screamed abuse at one of her children, a ten year old, one of the Garda broke the protestors’ nose.

An even bigger crowd will be at her office on St Stephen’s Green. Opinion polls give her a satisfaction rating of nearly just under 30%. They don’t seem to poll many of the people who now live in the 100,000 affordable rented units across the country built and operated by the agency under her leadership. From the 30 storey towers overlooking the mouth of the Liffey to the integrated new towns linked by speedy electric light rail outside Galway, Cork and Limerick. Everybody remembers the huge public demonstrations against the towers as she used her powers and budget to overrule legal objections to “go high”. 

The same politicians who had demanded a national housing emergency and immediate action on housing stood with the mob booing as the diggers and cement trucks inched their way past. She smiles at the memory of columnists and talking heads on the radio who swore blind that no Irish person would ever live in towers as high, that they’d be white elephants, left empty. 

Some even talked of a public inquiry into the waste of taxpayers money. There was the usual talk that she was obviously in someone’s pocket, as there always is in Ireland. 

Then when the first tower was completed, and the media revealed the spacious high ceilinged apartments, with their floor to ceiling windows looking out over the coast on one side and the city on the other, and their moderate controlled rent, the same politicians backflipped.

One sanctimonious member of the Oireachtas notorious for playing both sides of the housing issue was the first on the airwaves demanding that his constituents be given preference, having stood against the building a mere six months previously. 

As she arrives at the agency’s offices a small phalanx of Gardai force a channel through for her, as all sorts of jibes and allegations are flung at her. That she is a fascist for forcing through the building of units against local objections. That she is an elitist for insisting that every tenant sign a social contract allowing for prompt removal under the agency’s “three strikes” policy. 

That had been a controversial decision, but one she regarded as vital for making sure that every sector of Irish society bought into the idea of the state as the primary provider of affordable housing to all. No more public housing being for “those sort of people”, and as part of that she focussed on ending the stigma (often myth) that somehow public housing wasn’t safe. 

The agency had its own live-in supervisors in all its developments, all with the power to call in an anti-social behaviour (ASB) unit . Tenants didn’t have to put up neighbours playing music at all hours or dumping rubbish in the hallways. A phone call to the supervisor and the ASB were at the door in 30 minutes guaranteed, normally four big Eastern European ex-military. Three warnings and they’d assist you in moving out, on the spot, whether you liked it or not. 

It was probably her most popular policy, at least as far as the neighbours were concerned.

Of course, Ireland being Ireland, there was always some party willing to stand on the side of the anti-social, declaring that they themselves are the victims and are being oppressed. 

Columnists in leafy suburbs or private well-to-do apartments wrote savage pieces accusing the czar of being a right-wing authoritarian, attempting to impose her social values upon the creatively challenged who don’t wish to “get up early in the morning.”

As was the case with the man from the International Monetary Fund and the chief state pathologist, she gets a public profile far out of what would be expected for an appointed public official. 

Irish people just can’t help but personalise everything, even her policies. 

Her counterparts in other EU countries and internationally find it surreal that she is so well known, to a degree that newspapers actually run opinion polls as to the public’s attitude to her performance. 

It’s not just her building policy that shapes the country. Early on in her term a shortage in available builders with skills, brickies, electricians, plasterers, carpenters, leads to her setting up a state construction sub-agency with its own apprentice scheme. Politicians attack her as the school fills with Eastern and Central Europeans, but within three years she has her own capacity to supplement the private builders she is issuing contracts to.

As she packs the boxes in her office, taking the last of her private belongings, she looks at the far wall facing her desk. Hundreds of small single pictures of her or one of her officials presenting the keys to a new home to a smiling family. She remembers the tears, the people who never thought they’d afford a decent home. The excited children marvelling at their new rooms or the playgrounds at the heart of every development. 

She also remembers how almost every single development was met with local opposition, the housed coming up with excuses as to why they sympathised with the need to build new housing, but here was not the appropriate place. 

Who did she think she was? Coming into our neighbourhood, our town, our parish, issuing her diktats?

She was the first housing czar. She’d built 100,000 affordable high quality homes for rent, as her mandate had been when she had been appointed by the minister.

She would also be the last, her position to be abolished as part of a coalition deal with a promise to find a “more appropriate structure.” Populist politicians talked about selling the homes she had built to their tenants, with the promise to build more, but without a housing czar “bullying local communities and riding roughshod over local feelings.” 

She looked at the mob outside. They’d demanded a national housing emergency be declared.

Then a terrible thing happened: the politicians had given them one.  

Copyright © 2020 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.