Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
0

No-Deal Brexit won’t be a catastrophe. For their own sake, remainers should stop saying it will.

Posted by Jason O on Sep 21, 2018 in Brexit Referendum, British Politics, European Union

political-map-of-europe-lgPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

If one was fortunate enough to own a hyperbole mine, you’d do no better than be exporting into the no deal brexit debate, where your commodity would find good prices and healthy demand. If you were then to rely solely on the partisans, you’d be left with two clear impressions. The first is that a no deal brexit will be such a “Shaun of the Dead” dystopian apocalypse that you should not be surprised if you encounter, on the streets of London, a zombified Jacob Rees-Mogg shuffling towards you demanding to “eat your brains, assuming it is of course a convenient time for you”. Alternatively, you could also come away with the idea that a no deal Brexit will be the equivalent of either Idris Elba or Jennifer Lawrence (your choice) ringing you up to inform you that they need you around their place to help them try on all the new ridiculously tight swimwear they’ve just bought.

I say this as a convinced remainer and believer in the European project. My “own side” has been guilty from day one of flinging a tsunami of hysteria, promising such terrible consequences upon Britain that when those consequences did not immediately occur it did if anything call into question the very credibility of the remain side.

Only last week employment statistics released in the UK showed that unemployment in Britain has dropped to its lowest level in 40 years,  something which if the brexit campaign had promised during the referendum would have been absolutely dispatched by the remain campaign as fantasy.

Now, with no deal hurtling towards us, remainers continue to paint a picture of a post-brexit Britain on the edge of the breakdown of civilisation.

Let’s address a simple fact: even if there is a no deal brexit in March of next year, Britain will recover. It’s true that in the immediate short-term there could be huge difficulties with food and medicine shipments and customs control and clearance, and the recognition of British and EU drivers legal qualifications and credentials as they bring goods to and fro from Britain. It’s very reasonable to suspect that there will be difficulties.

But guess what: Britain can take it.

What’s more is that in the weeks and months after brexit, the European Union having made its point will then do what it always does. It will find a calm and rational solution to accommodate to some degree the needs of both sides because the reality is that both sides do want to trade. Both sides will also have citizens trapped behind “enemy lines” in the others’ jurisdiction and as a result both sides will want to address their needs.

Remainers need to stop painting a picture of economic and social collapse because it will reflect badly upon them when it doesn’t happen. Six months after brexit the situation will be running relatively smoothly, but the images of chaos painted by some remainers will be forever a matter of historical record and used against them for years to come, and that is not in their interest nor is it in Britain’s long-term interests.

This is not, by the way, a suggestion to remainers that they surrender, or indeed cease attempting to bring about a second referendum or as reasonable a version of brexit as is possible.

Instead I’d ask remainers to consider the overall reality of what is about to occur.  Whilst it is true that remainers have not used restraint in painting a picture of post-brexit Britain, neither have the brexiteers and in the long term it is the brexiteers who are going to be most disappointed for one simple reason.  

With the exception of China which by its sheer size occupies an almost unique position in terms of global trade the reality is that most prosperous countries prosper because they trade with the most prosperous markets closest to them. Brexiteers throughout the campaign have consistently presented the idea that Britain’s natural market is now on the other side of the planet and that somehow the European Union is a vague passing fancy that is bound to disappear into the mists of history any day now, taking with it its vast single market.  

Well it’s not.

At its heart, despite the rigidity of Michel Barnier’s negotiating stance, the reality is that the great success that is the European Union has been powered primarily by a pragmatic approach to resolving its challenges.

By logic the euro should not exist. By logic the EU should be disintegrating, less popular across the union than it has ever been. By logic brexit, one could argue, should have triggered a domino effect across Europe. But it didn’t, because the European Union has proven itself to be one of the most supple gymnasts of modern political history. You know the baddy Terminator robot that keeps changing shape as it needs? That’s the EU, that is.

And so, my fellow remainers, cut it out. You don’t have to overhype, because the laws of reality are on your side. The future of Britain as a country is one of a country still hard wired into the region of Europe despite the desires of brexiteers to sail away like Elizabethan buccaneers.

Reality will lead to certain conclusions.

The first is that even outside the European Union Britain is going to be trapped in the economic and regulatory gravitational field of our much vaster planetary body. This is a fact.  

Through sheer economic size British exporters will continue to lobby within a post-brexit Britain for British products to be regulatory compatible with whatever the European Union decides to apply to its products.

Just look at GDPR, a clear example of that legal force which applies to economic actors far removed from the physical European Union because they wish to have access to the single market.

Finally, here’s a reason why you shouldn’t overhype the consequences of brexit.

Brexit will allow a future British government made up of former remainers and those who see the benefit of Britain remaining close to its European partners greater opportunities now to integrate Britain into the European legal and regulatory framework.

Say what?

Think about it. How many Brits can name the director-general of the World Trade Organisation?  Essentially the EU is being downgraded from a visible force in daily British life to just another one of those international organisations.

No more UKIP MEPS. No more “Look what some Belgian said in the European Parliament!”

Will the BBC even report from Brussels as much?

Brexit Britain in the future will be a Britain paying hardly any media attention to decisions made in the European Commission or European Council. Yet the British embassy in Brussels will possibly be the largest UK embassy in the world, crammed full of diplomats quietly negotiating very long very tedious and very boring under-the-table technical agreements with the European Union which will effectively bind Britain to the EU, just in a far less transparent way than it currently is.

Hardline brexiteers will twig this, of course, and will probably give out blue bloody murder. But what will they be able to do about it? Try and get a referendum on the Agreement on Furniture Parts (Ball-bearings and castors) mutual standards recognition? Really?

The default of no deal is Britain surrendering its rule-making status and becoming, GDPR style, a rule-taker. Brexit means takes-it.

As an Irish remainer remaining in the EU, I can live with that.

 
0

A President for Europe: The Boardgame.

Posted by Jason O on Sep 19, 2018 in Boardgame A President for Europe, European Union, Not quite serious.

APFE BoardV2When I’m not writing columns and shaking my fist at the sky (same thing, some say) I’ve been designing a boardgame.

“A President for Europe” is a slightly tongue-in-cheek game where players are party leaders in a future European Union battling it out to be elected President of Europe.

Who will win, and can they stay in power? Or will the Russians rig the whole thing? This is a game of high politics and low tactics, doing deals, carving up votes and trying to stop the other leaders stabbing you in the back…if it wasn’t illegal, I’d insist it be played in a smoke-filled backroom.

APFE vote cards sampleDesign and testing is still going on, with a provisional plan for it to go on sale at the end of the year. Watch this space.

Drop me an email (see link above) if you want to be kept informed.

 
1

We need to take the lead on tax harmonisation.

Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland Edition

Who would have thought that Brexit was going to be so boring? It’s going on and on and on and aside from the odd entertaining scene provided by Brexiteers united in a bond of trust akin to that of your average New Jersey gangster, it feels like nothing is actually happening.

As if that isn’t bad enough, our political parties know that despite the mind-numbing tedium of the process, they have to be seen to be constantly talking about it because it is, of course, very important to our open island economy. That would be fine if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and Labour and even (whisper it) the shinners all had differing opinions on what our response to Brexit should be. But they don’t. Each one is an interpretative dance saying the same thing: no border, keep the UK market open, and keep the rights our citizens currently enjoy both here and in the UK. Even an election won’t change it, regardless of whether FF or FG end up propping up the other, the Schrodinger’s Cat of Irish politics, both in and out of power simultaneously.

The funny thing is that there is a huge issue looming towards us which is going to require a huge national debate. It has the potential to tear us apart, destroy our European policy, indeed call into question if not our membership of the European Union itself but at least the Eurozone. Whilst Micheal and Leo are down in steerage, drawing each other like “one of your French girls”, there’s a wall of pain looming out of the night towards us and we may not have anyone in the crow’s nest with binoculars.

It is, of course, our old friend, tax harmonisation. It’s back on the table, it isn’t going away, and more to the point, we should be willing to engage. It’s time we start the national debate. Should we support a European corporation tax regime?

We all know the arguments against. Our sovereign right to set corporate tax is the closest thing we have in Ireland to the Americans right to bear arms. Whereas in the US middle-aged men dress up in combat gear and take up positions on streets with ridiculously unnecessary firepower, in Ireland corporate lawyers stand menacing with copies of the Maastricht treaty tucked in underarm holsters. We’re on a rock in the north Atlantic, and without the power to help giant corporations fiddle their taxes (sorry, achieve optimum tax efficiency) we have bugger all to offer them compared to other countries within the single market. That and we’re a bleeding island too, that doesn’t help either.

True, we do speak English. The Americans regard us as less objectionable than the French and not as scary as the Germans, and in any case they’re related to half of us. Also it helps that our nearest neighbours seem determined to win the Olympic gold in self-face punching, but the tax issue is a big deal to us.

But things are changing on the continent. Emmanuel Macron is busy trying to push through reforms to French labour law to, you know, let businesses hire people without the MD having to surrender a kidney as a hostage. But as his plummeting poll numbers show, he’ll need to do something to shore up the centre-left vote that put him in. What better way than kicking the crap out of mega-companies? Nobody likes them anyway, so make them pay more than the current somewhat modest contribution they make to our corporate tax coffers? Hence our problem.

We could panic, and try to hold the line. It would at least save us the hassle of having to think up a new policy. Lord knows, our politicians sure hate having to think up anything other than new ways to spend other people’s money. Didn’t we get through the first fifty years of independence on a single idea? That everything was the dirty Brits fault and if they cleared off out of the north we’d be in clover? That was quickly followed up by Jaysus, Look at the Size Of The Wallet On That German Fella! Now we’re like a non-violent Pablo Escobar, helping all sorts dig holes to bury whatever it is they’re burying, of which we’d be shocked, shocked I tells ye, to discover was money.

Now that era is coming to a close, and rather than roar and shout and play the victim, let’s confront a few harsh realities.

Yes, Macron needs the tax revenue. But so do we. Just go into McDonalds and see the stationary robot you type your order into. We’re entering a new period of human existence, where labour surplus (what we used to call unemployment) mixed with longer life expectancy will require huge wealth redistribution. Everything from more health spending to a basic income will require more tax revenue, and Ireland alone can’t raise that money if it is engaged in tax competition with other members of the single market.

The argument has always been made that we will be screwed by a consolidated tax base (CCCTB) because we lose a very attractive tool and get little in return as many of those companies, hit by taxes wherever they are in the EU, decide to move to the continent where the main marketplace is.

It’s a fair point. It’s also why Ireland can’t just drag our heels but have to leap forward with a proposal. That yes, we are willing to drop our veto to tax harmonisation. But only if it goes the whole way by creating a central European Corporate Tax Treasury. A central fund where all Europe’s corporate tax revenue will go, and where a country like Ireland, at a serious disadvantage being both on the Atlantic rim and an island, will be guaranteed a compensatory share. A share we can use to openly bribe companies to stay here, whilst enlarging the corporate tax take for all of Europe.

It’s a big deal. It might even need a referendum, given the fact that we would be effectively ceding some tax-raising powers to Brussels. This is high stakes, because the Brits have proven that they can’t stop European integration and we can’t either.

But we can turn this to our strength. Google and Apple and the rest aren’t dummies. They can see the argument on corporate tax is changing globally. Now, with the Brits sailing off into the 19th century, the corporations still have a friend at the table that gets them. That will listen.

Us. The island between Boston and Berlin.

But only if we take the lead, work that seat, be the bridge between our FDI friends and the Macron-Merkel alliance.  

Scary? Yup. That’s life in bed with the giant Franco-German elephant.

But rather than complain about being squashed, better we get an early say as to who gets what side of the bed. 

 
0

British politics needs a bit of Irish in it.

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

I came across an intriguing opinion poll by YouGov last week which gave an insight into the difference as to how Irish and British voters approach voting. The poll was questioning British voters as to how they would vote in the event of a second referendum on brexit. It offered voters three choices: remain, a “soft brexit” deal and “hard brexit”, what we call “no deal”.

The poll addressed the issue of a remain win by splitting the brexit vote: the idea that if remain voters stay together and brexit voters split between the two brexit options remain would win a first past the post contest even though a majority of voters actually voted for brexit. It proposed a preferential voting system to ensure that the final result would have the support of over 50% of voters. What we in Ireland know as the single transferable vote.

For the benefit of those readers who are not familiar with preferential voting, quite simply it works like this: if you are faced with a number of choices you place the number one beside your favourite candidate, number two beside your second favourite candidate and so on.

By doing so you are essentially telling vote counters that “This is my first choice. If he/she/it cannot win,  I would like my vote to go to my second choice and so on until someone is elected. The idea being that your vote may not get your favourite candidate elected, but it will at least help elect someone less objectionable to you.

As a voting system it has been very successful in Ireland, as determined by the fact that both attempts to change it to first past the post, in 1959 and 1968 in referendums were both rejected by voters, in 1968 by a 20% margin.

What was interesting about the poll, however, was that it first asked voters to choose amongst the three options, and to make a second preference choice in the event the first choice was eliminated.

41% of those polled refused to offer a second preference.

Think about that for a minute. Think about it in the context of going into a restaurant and asking the waiter to bring you a steak. He says “I’m sorry sir, we’re out of steak, would you care to look at the menu for something else?”. Now, normally people would be disappointed that they couldn’t have the first choice but nevertheless look through the menu for something that they would be satisfied with. The 41% are essentially saying they’d like steak and if they can’t have steak they don’t want anything else and would rather go hungry.

From an Irish perspective, this is downright peculiar. The number of people in Irish elections who fail to transfer after their first preference is actually quite small because Irish voters recognise that even if one does not get the one’s first choice, you can still use your ballot to try and stop the option you detest the most. This matters because the brexit vote was the single most democratic act in British history since 1935: at no other time has any party or proposition won a majority of the vote on a turnout like that of June 2016.

I find it hard to believe, therefore, that there are large numbers on either side of the debate in Britain who have no view as to what would be the least worst option if they could not get brexit or remain. The idea that someone who voted for remain, if they knew that remain was going to lose would not prefer a soft brexit rather than the hard brexit seems to me to be quite bizarre.

In the same way I would assume that people who wish a hard brexit would prefer a soft brexit rather than to remain in the European Union.

There are those who could make the argument that if they thought that the choice was between remain and a soft brexit and they supported a full brexit they might actually prefer to remain in the European Union on the basis that soft brexit, as Tony Blair argues, is the worst of both worlds.

But 41% having no second opinion? Really? Unless it’s a case of “I’ve voted for what I want and I’ll burn down the place rather than consider a second slightly less attractive option” which is always possible, I suppose.  

Britain is not a complete stranger to the single transferable vote or as it is known in Britain, AV. They know the alternative vote having rejected it overwhelmingly in a referendum in 2011.

But things change. The reality is that a preferential voting system whether used in a single decision such as this or used in multi seat constituencies as in Dail elections and in Northern Ireland would resolve not just the issue of a final decision by the British people as to whether brexit should go ahead.

STV also offers British voters a solution to a problem which is currently poisoning their political system.

Take the current talk of a general election to settle the issue. It wouldn’t, because it can’t. The current first past the post electoral system is malfunctioning so badly that it could easily result in a majority of remain voters or a majority of leave voters winning the popular vote but being deprived of a fair voice in the parliament that resulted.

Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are so split that a general election just reveals that there are people who are trapped in political parties with people with whom they fundamentally disagree with on this issue and others, and the electoral system is forcing them to remain in that party and is forcing voters then to make false choices.

What does voting Tory mean in the next election if you vote for John Redwood or Ian Duncan Smith or Anna Soubry or Ken Clarke?

If you are a solid remain voter and decide to go the whole hog and vote Liberal Democrat you may in fact be splitting in the remain vote and helping brexiteers win. The same applies to UKIP voters wanting to vote pure brexit. They’ll drain brexit votes away from more viable brexit candidates.  

STV solves all this: there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. You can transfer your preferences from your first choice to other remain or brexit candidates as you see fit without hurting their chance of being elected. STV is the voter’s friend.  

The irony is that the single transferable vote is a British invention, devised by a British lawyer named Thomas Hare. Britain imposed it as part of the Anglo Irish treaty in an attempt to ensure that in Northern Ireland catholics will get fair representation, and the same in Southern Ireland for protestants.  It worked. So much so that the unionists abolished STV for Stormont elections as soon as they could.

A fair-minded citizen of the republic would have to admit that the single transferable vote was one of the greatest gifts the British actually gave the Irish people. It’s fair, transparent, and highly  entertaining to watch on the day of an election count.

It’s a system that has served us well, as it has the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Malta and India. As a means of healing the tension that has arisen between the UK and Ireland since June 2016 we could do a lot worse than offer to help Britain adopt the election system they gifted us nearly 100 years ago. Go on: it really is as easy as one two three.

 
0

The future of Europe may well be decided next May

Posted by Jason O on Sep 5, 2018 in European Union, The Times Ireland Edition

political-map-of-europe-lgPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

I wonder does Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and current European Parliament Mr. Brexit ever look out the window and sigh at how aliens have never once tried to kill him?

Not once has he ever had to battle down corridors cracking aliens over the head with blunt objects like the proposed European Hatware for Badgers with Low Esteem directive, perhaps forming a chalk and cheese fighting partnership with Nigel Farage who, let’s be honest, would side with the EU against face-sucking acid-spitting alien psychopaths.

Well, he probably would. They’re illegal immigrants, after all.

It’s never happened, because you can tell the level of public relevance a political institution is held to by whether Hollywood tries to blow it up by alien invasion.

The White House, United States Congress, Houses of Parliament have all had their fair share of punishment rained down upon them from giant alien battlecruisers.

To the best of my knowledge, no alien invasion fleet has ever tried to destroy the European Parliament.

It’s hard to recall any movie or TV series where the European Parliament was involved. One has to go back to the movie “Paris by night” (1985) to recall Charlotte Rampling playing a British member of the European Parliament, and I do vaguely recall that cad and scoundrel Alan B’stard (played by the late Rik Mayall) was an MEP for a short while in “The New Statesman”.

There was even a thriller written in the 1980s called “The Commissioner” about skullduggery in Brussels and written by one Stanley Johnson, father of you-know-who, but the European Parliament is no “West Wing”.

It’s not even “Borgen”.

Well, buckle up. The European parliament is going to become the most exciting place in Europe within the next ten months.

There won’t be any Martians, but there’ll be no shortage of Nazis.  

Some weeks ago I speculated in this column that the European elections in May could turn out to be a contest of high drama between the forces of European moderate centrism of left and right and the extremists from the aspiring Venezuela left to the various shades of hard right political opinion across Europe.

That was before the news that Steve Bannon, the Sith Lord of Trumpism, has decided to set up shop in our fair continent in an attempt to repeat the Trump victory in a new European format.

If I was slightly worried a few weeks ago about the future of Europe I am now terrified.

The reality is that a victory for the forces of extremism in the European Parliament is very possible, and it matters.

It’s quite possible that European citizens, in the usual bolshy elbows-out attitude towards their sitting national governments may decide to go rogue in the European elections of next year in the mistaken belief that European elections don’t matter. It did used to be fairly ho-hum, occasionally livened up by the soon to be gone presence of UKIP MEPs, who were always a bit of fun accusing each other of things when they weren’t beating the crap out of each other.

But now things get serious. Voters might well believe that the previously sleepy yawn-and-you’ll-not-miss-it legislature is a cost-free no-consequence slap in the face to home politicians, that votes for extremists in the European parliament is some sort of harmless minor protest.

In the past it might have been, but if voters think that now they are very much mistaken.

The parliament is not the toothless rubber-stamping forum of the past.  Successive national governments, stung by criticisms of the EU being undemocratic, kept throwing a few morsels of power down into the dungeon holding the infant parliament, and we’re suddenly surprised when a big beast comes bounding up the stairs years later.

It is a legislature with real power including the power to block the European budget, the power to sack the commission and indeed from the last European elections a very significant if debatable power in terms of deciding who will be the next president of the European commission.

The so-called “spitzenkandidaten” process has a potential to be a nightmare scenario.

Spitzenkandidaten is an informal understanding between the main parties in the European parliament that each party shall nominate a candidate for the presidency of the European commission and that the party who forms the largest single group in the post-election parliament then has the right to nominate to the European council that candidate for the job of succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker.

It’s true that the European treaty which governs the appointment of the president of the commission does not specifically give the power of nomination to the European Parliament.

Instead it says vaguely (on something that you really want to be vague about?) that the European council must “take into account” the results of the European elections.

That could mean anything. That could be the European council perusing a copy of The Times before deciding, but this all comes back down to the composition of the European parliament.

What if the largest block in the parliament is made up of hard-right eurosceptics?

Supposing they nominate say Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders for president?

If they were appointed, that’s the end of the EU.

If the council were to refuse the nominee of the European parliament we get a constitutional crisis with the democratically elected European Parliament on one side and the in-directly elected European council on the other.

Either way is a democratic crisis.

This is why we need to get it clear right now that the president of the commission will be chosen by the member states, not the parliament.

This matters.

The next European elections are going to be a battle between the forces of decency and moderation and those who wish to drive Europe back into darker times.

As part of that we need to abandon the spitzenkandidaten process, which has failed to connect democratically with European voters anyway.

I mean, who can name the last Social Democrat candidate?

I can, but that’s hardly something to brag about.

If anything, I should probably keep that to myself.

It’s also absolutely inconceivable that this European Union or its constituent member states should tolerate the interference or even presence of Steve Bannon within the borders of Europe.

He’s not entitled to be here because he’s not a European Union citizen, if anything more like a de facto enemy combatant, someone who is engaged in a open conspiracy with the far-right to destroy this union.

Steve Bannon should not be allowed into Europe.

If we cannot get consent at European Union level, through the Poles or the Hungarians blocking, then it should be up to individual member states.

Simon Coveney should take the lead and say that Steve Bannon will not be welcome in Ireland and that the minister for justice will have him detained and removed from the jurisdiction of this country if he attempts to enter it.

He should be treated as we would someone advocating radical Islamist terrorism or engaged in espionage and removed accordingly.

We may have held back the forces of darkness when Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, but we are going to have to defeat those forces again and again.

We can at least start by recognising the Hydra when we see it.

Then by promptly cutting off one of its heads.

 

 
2

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: 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.

 
0

Great TV: The Irish RM

Posted by Jason O on Aug 26, 2018 in Cult TV, Movies/TV/DVDs

the-irish-rm“The Irish RM”, which ran for three series from 1983-85, has unfairly been dismissed in recent years as a bit of paddywhackery about the clever English been driven to despair by the stupid ways of the pre-independence Irish of 1897 to 1905, when it is set. I have to admit that until I rewatched the series on DVD recently I held that view myself, based on vague memories of it on TV as a child.

Watching it now, however, reveals that the show was much more subtle and balanced in its portrayal of the two countries and their views of each other. Indeed, if one is being honest, it’s arguable that there is one only episode, its final one, where the English score a clear victory over the Irish. As Yates himself discovers, what looks to an outsider like a bit of Irish stupidity is almost always revealed to be hiding some scheme behind it.

Set in a rural Cork district in 1897, the series tells in comedy drama form the tribulations of Major Sinclair Yates (Peter Bowles), a decent if unimaginative new appointment as the resident magistrate. Yates finds that not only does he have to deal with the Machiavellian smoke and mirrors of the local Catholic rural poor, but also the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy who are often hand in glove with the Catholics against the stiff rule of Dublin Castle.

The show was well received in its first broadcast, not only for its entertainment value but also for the fact that it was one of the few major TV drama productions filmed in Ireland in the mid-1980s, and provided a platform for a Who’s Who of Irish acting talent including Bryan Murray in a career-defining role as the roguish but lovable Flurry Knox, Niall Toibin as his equally roguish henchman Slipper and Anna Manahan as the terrifying Mrs Cadogan. Everybody else from Mick Lally, Noel Purcell, Frank Kelly, Joe Lynch, Alan Stanford, Lise Ann McLaughlin, Pat Laffan, Eamonn Morrissey, Brendan Conroy, Virginia Lawless, David Kelly, Jonathan Ryan and others all got their bit.

In fact, it’s quite possible that no one in Ireland over 40 has not met someone who was in it at some stage. Off the top of my head I can think of three people I’ve met who had roles in it. Retweet this if you’ve met one of them!

The humour is gentle, and there is a little bit too much chasing a goose around a garden type shenanigans for my liking, but it is a charming show with some top class performances. Worth another look.

 
0

Cult TV: 1990

Posted by Jason O on Aug 25, 2018 in Movies/TV/DVDs

One of the curiosities about recent TV and movie drama set in tyrannical futures is that they tend to be set in an overhyped right-wing future, dominated by fascism, the religious right, or big business. It’s quite rare that, with the exception of Orwell’s 1984, which could just as easily be about fascism, you come across a fictional portrayal of a recognisable left wing tyranny dominated by, say, the unions and an overbearing state. In today’s climate, the idea of union leaders actively dominating a country’s political system is pretty far fetched, but in the 1970s in Britain, it wasn’t that radical an idea to extrapolate past the industrial chaos of the 1970s into a Socialist dominated Britain.

Ironically, it was that bastion of liberalism, the BBC, which produced the concept. “1990″, starring Edward Woodward as a rebellious journalist facing down the government’s menacing Public Control Department, ran for two seasons in 1977/78. Like most drama produced in the 1970s, it’s studio bound talkiness can be quite irritating to a modern TV audience used to speedy plot progress, save maybe for “Mad Men” fans, of course. I can’t say that I really recommend it as entertaining (You can find most episodes on Youtube and make your own judgement) but as a political concept piece it’s quite interesting for its novelty.

The show is set in a fictional 1990, seven years after the economic collapse of Britain leads to the coming to power of a hard left union dominated government in a general election where only 20% bother to vote. The government implements all the classics: nationalises nearly all business, introduces penal taxation, taxes imports and luxury goods and bans overtime (to create job sharing). It deals with the “rich fleeing high taxes” problem by introducing an East German exit visa system. You simply can’t leave, and a lot of the show is about Edward Woodward’s resistance leader Jim Kyle trying to help mostly talented people, or political dissidents, get over the English channel.

What’s interesting about “1990″ is the subtlety. The country is still nominally a democracy with a parliament (although fresh elections are indefinitely postponed), and there’s still a few non-state owned newspapers, but try to print anything overly critical of the state and the union shop stewards basically refuse to operate the printing presses. It’s an very right wing dramatic viewpoint that is hard to imagine on television today. The Home Office’s Public Control Department (PCD) basically operate as a relatively non-violent Stasi, sending opponents of the regime off to Adult Rehabilitation Centres where they’re electroshocked into being good citizens.

The state doesn’t like open Soviet style violence, because of the poor publicity it causes in the rest of Europe and the US, and so pressures people in more imaginative ways, such as Automatic Systematic Harassment, where an individual is targeted and subjected to every single legal inspection possible. Your car is constantly checked to ensure it’s legally compliant. Your taxes are scrutinised. Every form you have ever signed is gone over to see if you made any errors and therefore possibly broke the law. Your bins are checked to see if you are dumping things you shouldn’t be dumping. All legal, and individually all reasonable actions even in today’s society, but taken together it’s “the slow steamroller of the state”.

The cast isn’t bad, with Woodward (who shared the show’s conservative anti-tax philosophy) beginning to develop that shouty acting style he would later bring to “The Equalizer”. But it is very slow. Apparently, by the way, the concept of the show came to writer Wilfred Greatorex after his house was raided by VAT inspectors!

SPOILER ALERT***

If you are going to watch the series, don’t read this, because I wanted to comment on how the series concludes.

Right, you’ve been warned. One of the basic premises of the show is that high ranking civil servants, although nominally under political control, are actually in charge. In the final episodes the Home Secretary Kate Smith (played coquettishly by the late Yvonne Mitchell, in her final role, and portrayed as a cross between Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher), a supporter of the regime, begins to realise that the public is tiring of the PCD, and betrays the PCD on television, announcing that the cabinet are shocked are the abuse of power by senior PCD officials. She actually leads a mob of angry citizens on a raid on PCD headquarters, but makes sure that they don’t destroy the PCD’s vast computer database because it’ll be allegedly needed for the trials of the PCD officials she’s only been instructing days previously. It’s a wonderfully cynical performance, and although it does herald a return to normal civil liberties and politics, it ends the series ominously.

 
0

Where Eight Bells Toll: When Anthony Hopkins was an action hero.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 20, 2018 in Movies/TV/DVDs

hopkinsBefore his breakthrough role (all less than 20 minutes of it) in “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991, Anthony Hopkins had been a successful if moderately well known actor. In 1971, he starred as British secret agent Commander Philip Calvert in the film of Alastair Maclean’s “Where Eight Bells Toll”, which was intended to have been the first in a series of movies about Calvert.

The film is noticeable for being a very low-key thriller, a sort of modest budget 007 about Calvert investigating the disappearance of ships carrying gold bullion off the coast of Scotland. Hopkins, like Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, plays the role as a tough but workaday johnny just doing his job. It’s a pity they didn’t do any more of the movies, as the character is actually quite likable. He’s rude, shouty towards his boss, vicious in fights, yet has a moral compass. The late Robert Morley is superb as his boss, who expresses shock at the possibility of a member of his club being a baddie: “But he’s on the wine committee!”

I posted the below scene, which is the last scene in the movie (it does not really ruin any plot) because it highlights the character, and the theme tune which will bounce around your head for days afterwards.

 
0

The future of Europe could be decided next May.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 19, 2018 in European Union

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

I wonder does Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and current European Parliament Mr. Brexit ever look out the window and sigh at how aliens have never once tried to kill him?

Not once has he ever had to battle down corridors cracking aliens over the head with blunt objects like the proposed European Hatware for Badgers with Low Esteem directive, perhaps forming a chalk and cheese fighting partnership with Nigel Farage who, let’s be honest, would side with the EU against face-sucking acid-spitting alien psychopaths.

Well, he probably would. They’re illegal immigrants, after all.

It’s never happened, because you can tell the level of public relevance a political institution is held to by whether Hollywood tries to blow it up by alien invasion.

The White House, United States Congress, Houses of Parliament have all had their fair share of punishment rained down upon them from giant alien battlecruisers.

To the best of my knowledge, no alien invasion fleet has ever tried to destroy the European Parliament.

It’s hard to recall any movie or TV series where the European Parliament was involved. One has to go back to the movie “Paris by night” (1985) to recall Charlotte Rampling playing a British member of the European Parliament, and I do vaguely recall that cad and scoundrel Alan B’stard (played by the late Rik Mayall) was an MEP for a short while in “The New Statesman”.

There was even a thriller written in the 1980s called “The Commissioner” about skullduggery in Brussels and written by one Stanley Johnson, father of you-know-who, but the European Parliament is no “West Wing”.

It’s not even “Borgen”.

Well, buckle up. The European parliament is going to become the most exciting place in Europe within the next ten months.

There won’t be any Martians, but there’ll be no shortage of Nazis.  

Some weeks ago I speculated in this column that the European elections in May could turn out to be a contest of high drama between the forces of European moderate centrism of left and right and the extremists from the aspiring Venezuela left to the various shades of hard right political opinion across Europe.

That was before the news that Steve Bannon, the Sith Lord of Trumpism, has decided to set up shop in our fair continent in an attempt to repeat the Trump victory in a new European format.

If I was slightly worried a few weeks ago about the future of Europe I am now terrified.

The reality is that a victory for the forces of extremism in the European Parliament is very possible, and it matters.

It’s quite possible that European citizens, in the usual bolshy elbows-out attitude towards their sitting national governments may decide to go rogue in the European elections of next year in the mistaken belief that European elections don’t matter. It did used to be fairly ho-hum, occasionally livened up by the soon to be gone presence of UKIP MEPs, who were always a bit of fun accusing each other of things when they weren’t beating the crap out of each other.

But now things get serious. Voters might well believe that the previously sleepy yawn-and-you’ll-not-miss-it legislature is a cost-free no-consequence slap in the face to home politicians, that votes for extremists in the European parliament is some sort of harmless minor protest.

In the past it might have been, but if voters think that now they are very much mistaken.

The parliament is not the toothless rubber-stamping forum of the past.  Successive national governments, stung by criticisms of the EU being undemocratic, kept throwing a few morsels of power down into the dungeon holding the infant parliament, and we’re suddenly surprised when a big beast comes bounding up the stairs years later.

It is a legislature with real power including the power to block the European budget, the power to sack the commission and indeed from the last European elections a very significant if debatable power in terms of deciding who will be the next president of the European commission.

The so-called “spitzenkandidaten” process has a potential to be a nightmare scenario. Spitzenkandidaten is an informal understanding between the main parties in the European parliament that each party shall nominate a candidate for the presidency of the European commission and that the party who forms the largest single group in the post-election parliament then has the right to nominate to the European council that candidate for the job

of succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker.

It’s true that the European treaty which governs the appointment of the president of the commission does not specifically give the power of nomination to the European Parliament.

Instead it says vaguely (on something that you really want to be vague about?) that the European council must “take into account” the results of the European elections.

That could mean anything. That could be the European council perusing a copy of The Times before deciding, but this all comes back down to the composition of the European parliament.

What if the largest block in the parliament is made up of hard-right eurosceptics?

Supposing they nominate say Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders for president?

If they were appointed, that’s the end of the EU.

If the council were to refuse the nominee of the European parliament we get a constitutional crisis with the democratically elected European Parliament on one side and the in-directly elected European council on the other.

Either way is a democratic crisis.

This is why we need to get it clear right now that the president of the commission will be chosen by the member states, not the parliament.

This matters.

The next European elections are going to be a battle between the forces of decency and moderation and those who wish to drive Europe back into darker times.

As part of that we need to abandon the spitzenkandidaten process, which has failed to connect democratically with European voters anyway.

I mean, who can name the last Social Democrat candidate?

I can, but that’s hardly something to brag about.

If anything, I should probably keep that to myself.

It’s also absolutely inconceivable that this European Union or its constituent member states should tolerate the interference or even presence of Steve Bannon within the borders of Europe.

He’s not entitled to be here because he’s not a European Union citizen, if anything more like a de facto enemy combatant, someone who is engaged in a open conspiracy with the far-right to destroy this union.

Steve Bannon should not be allowed into Europe.

If we cannot get consent at European Union level, through the Poles or the Hungarians blocking, then it should be up to individual member states.

Simon Coveney should take the lead and say that Steve Bannon will not be welcome in Ireland and that the minister for justice will have him detained and removed from the jurisdiction of this country if he attempts to enter it.

He should be treated as we would someone advocating radical Islamist terrorism or engaged in espionage and removed accordingly.

We may have held back the forces of darkness when Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, but we are going to have to defeat those forces again and again.

We can at least start by recognising the Hydra when we see it.

Then by promptly cutting off one of its heads.

Copyright © 2018 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.