Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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20 Years ago I put my name on a ballot paper…

Posted by Jason O on May 18, 2019 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

PD Canvass card

Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.

I was reminded recently that this year’s local elections mark 20 years since I dipped my toe into the electoral pond as a candidate for the Progressive Democrats in Dublin City Council elections. Looking back on the adventure that was my running for election in the Pembroke ward I think I can say with accuracy that be 94% of the voting electorate who cast their first preference vote for candidates other than me displayed far more sense and insight into my potential as a city councillor than I knew myself at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that I would have been a pretty bad councillor. It’s not that I would not have approached the job with good intentions or a lack of seriousness but rather that I now recognise the huge volume of work that is required to be a successful, that is, re-elected public representative.

Read more…

 
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Don’t think we’re immune to Brexitism.

Posted by Jason O on Apr 21, 2019 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Marine-LePenPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

You’ve probably seen that clip recently of over three thousand new Irish citizens being sworn in at the Gleneagles centre in Killarney. Those citizenship ceremonies, an initiative of Alan Shatter when he was justice minister may well turn out to be his greatest ministerial legacy. They’re a huge improvement on the old system, where people turned up at an old drafty courthouse and took an oath with little pomp or ceremony and I have to admit bring a certain moistening to my eyes every time I see the happiness on the faces of the people becoming citizens of our great country.

It’s a big deal, and a big contrast to the UK. Whereas our taoiseach lauded them and their contribution to our country, next door Theresa May was unveiling her stripping of British and EU citizens rights to live and work across the EU and UK with disturbing salivation. Gavin Esler, the former BBC journalist and now novelist remarked on the juxtaposition, pointing out Leo’s welcome marked the country as “a place where new arrivals enrich a country and are not referred to as “queue jumpers.”

 

As a progressive liberal, one could easily drown in one’s sense of smug satisfaction, living in a country which, by eurobarometer standards, is the most pro-EU in Europe, has just elected an intellectual lefty poet as president by a landslide, became the first country in the world to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote, and finally resolved the unpleasantness that was the 8th amendment.

 

One could easily think Ireland is bulletproof from a liberal standpoint.

 

Think again. It would not take a lot to move this country into a Hungarian-style populist fury, burning EU flags and where non-whites  live in terror.

 

We must never forget that as a people we are terribly susceptible to group-think. We desperately want to fit in, not be the outlier with the awkward opinion. Our political class is stuffed with mob panderers pretending to stand up for some innocuous principle and “not caring who knows it”, all the while making sure they’re on the least unpopular side of an issue.

 

One of the biggest dangers in the western democracies, including ourselves, is complacency and the belief that human rights only ratchet in one direction. The death penalty was illegal in the United States from 1972 to 1976. For most of the 1980s and 1990s the idea of Britain leaving the European Community was the argument mostly of marginal cranks.

 

It’s simply not that incredible to imagine a scenario where 35%-40% of Irish voters could support withdrawal from a future EU. Polls currently showing support for Irish membership of the EU at 92% suggest to me widespread but not very deep support for the EU, which could turn given the right conditions.

The first condition for Irexit (Or EireGo! as I call it) would be a credible party advocating it. No major party in Ireland currently supports it, but let’s not forget that Sinn Fein is only relatively new to supporting EU membership. Indeed, the party has spent more of my adult life supporting withdrawal than membership. It also can’t be ignored that the DUP’s hysterical opposition and paranoia about the EU contributed to Sinn Fein’s ability to support the EU on the “If themmuns are agin’ it, it must be doing something right” platform.

In 1972 Labour, now one of our most pro-European parties, campaigned against us joining. DeValera himself, ensconced at the Áras at the time, was reputedly against us joining the EEC and apparently voted against.

At the same time the Tories were very much the European party in the UK, with Labour the little Englander party. Now it’s hard to imagine a new openly pro-EU prospective candidate getting through a Conservative selection convention. Parties change.

It’s not hard to imagine a future Fianna Fail, frustrated with opposition, opening the door to moderate euro-criticism and then getting hooked on the support from latent eurosceptics who do indeed exist in the country.

The next condition would be economic.

A recession, cuts to public services, and suddenly the fact that we have been nett contributors to the EU since 2014 and will pay the EU €2.7 billion this year (although we will get back about €1.8 billion in EU funding) suddenly becomes a public debating point. Never forget the curious pride the Irish have in seeing ourselves as a poor downtrodden nation. The argument, for which we are the actual living embodiment, that investing in EU funds in poorer EU countries creates future markets for your products won’t carry much water against tax rises or cuts in public spending.

Don’t think that we’re immune to the anti-immigrant thing either.

We’ve just been fortunate that so far it has been pitched by dopes.  

Imagine a clean-cut Mammy’s Favourite Lovely Young Man Micheál Martin-style (not him personally, obviously. He’s solid on Europe and will have no truck with racism) candidate, an articulate Peter Casey talking about housing shortages and waiting lists and how “we must put our own first” without coming across as a neo-nazi.

Imagine such a party leader standing up to Brussels a la Viktor Orban, trying to disperse refugees across Europe, talking about elites. It wouldn’t take long, in an Ireland still racked by obscene housing costs and shortages, for refugees and the EU to be identified as the source of our woes.

The desire of the rest of Europe to actually defend itself, a concept that is regarded as alien to most of the Irish population, could be another source of Irexiteer growth. It’s not impossible to imagine a future EU insisting that a substantial part of the EU budget be directed at defence. An Irexit party could make, I suspect, plenty of hay wanting to know why Irish taxpayer money is funding tanks protecting Estonia and not building houses in Ringsend?  

That’s all assuming there is a credible Irexit party in Ireland with credible candidates, something which I suspect is much harder to achieve than it appears. I also suspect that the sort of people agitated by Irexit and asylum seekers and abortion are less likely to be willing to do the constituency graft that in Ireland builds critical voting mass.

But here’s a different scenario: what about a Irexit supported by the current mainstream parties?

Impossible?

What if the EU were to fundamentally change?

Picture a future Europe with Marine Le Pen in the Elysee, Alternativ fur Deutschland in coalition in Germany, Salvini in Italy, Orban in Hungary, all planning to “do something” about the Muslims in Europe. Imagine if Putin offered to “host” a vast refugee camp in occupied Ukraine in return for Europe turning a blind eye to the tightening Russian stranglehold on that country.

Consider the spectacle of Irish naval ships pulling migrants out of the Mediterranean as they do now, and then handing them over to an EU border force which loads them at machine gun point onto trains to the Ukraine, no longer our problem? Would that be an EU we’d wish to be part of?

 

I sometimes get accused of pushing out the fantasy i bit too much in these columns. In response, I always remind people of one simple fact.

 

In the May 1928 Reichstag elections the Nazi party got 2.6% and 12 seats out of 491.

Just over five years later, they got all the seats.

Every single one.

Freedom is fragile, and what we cherish has to be fought for every single day.    

 
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The Jupiter Decision: A short story.

Posted by Jason O on Apr 17, 2019 in eNovels & Writing, European Union, Fiction, Politics, Short stories, Writing

FRANCE-POLITICS-DEFENCEThe Airbus A380 started moving as soon as the door was closed, before the cars in the motorcade even had time to get fully clear of the massive thrust of the engines. The pilot, a colonel in the French air force, slammed the engines into full throttle to execute what was called a hard take-off, the plane getting into the air quickly and immediately into a sharp incline to gain as much height as possible. A number of Elysee officials who had been busy securing the president of the French Republic before getting back to their seats were knocked off their feet by the angle, both being grabbed by burly bodyguards and pulled into seats as the plane reached its cruising height.

The military cabin crew, briefed as to the situation, had immediately lowered all the blinds on the windows, so that the passengers on-board could not see the military airbase and Paris speed away into the distance.

It actually meant they would not be blinded by the detonation of a nuclear warhead over the French capital as was one possibility they were expecting at this very moment. Nor could they see the four heavily fuelled and armed Rafale fighters escorting the plane on its pre-planned flight plan, designed to avoid major urban areas and military targets (for spotting purposes and also because they were likely nuclear targets) and take the plane out over the Atlantic.

Read more…

 
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Things I’ve learnt from US TV drama.

Posted by Jason O on Mar 20, 2019 in Cult TV

1. You have to be professional model hot to be a female Assistant District Attorney.

2. It is the job of senior politicians to stick their jaws out and tell their juniors to “expedite” things.

3. No one who can grasp complicated scientific or technical concepts is allowed head an elite law enforcement unit. They have to demand other people “speak English” instead.

4. US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have legal standing everywhere in the world except Iran, Russia, Cuba and North Korea.

5. If a hero cuts corners, it’s ok. If some else cuts corners they’re not doing their damn job.

6. Sex between two beautiful people always makes the moon shine through the window.

7. If a working joe is decent and loves his family, his wife will always be at least two points higher on the hot scale than he is.

8. Every single piece of information in the world is just six key strokes away from US government employees.

9. People who threaten to “have your job” never manage to.

10. Americans don’t know that Christmas lasts longer than a single day.

11. Officials who say “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists” are alway wrong.

12. As are military or police leaders who never listen to the ordinary working cop/soldier on the ground.

13. Every terrorist has been on the hostage negotiation course, and has read the “Dealing with a hostage situation” manual.

14. Reciting someone’s CV to them in detail when you first meet them doesn’t make you sound clever. It makes you sound like a dick.

15. Every major company in America is run by either an asshole or a guy who worked his way up from the mailroom.

16. There are far, far more ex-Navy SEALS and ex-special forces people at work than there are people in the special forces of the world.

17. There seems to be some sort of system for allocating the title of “Hottest new restaurant/club in town”.

 
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An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Scandal.

Posted by Jason O on Mar 20, 2019 in Irish Politics, Not quite serious.
Our elite legal system swings into action!

Our elite legal system swings into action!

A regular re-post, originally written in 2009…

Given the moral failings of the Irish as a race, it is hardly surprising that there is a clear and tested timeline to every scandal which besets Irish society, whether it is moral, political, social or financial. The timeline is as such:

1. Issue emerges. Country particularly mortified at how the British media cover it.

2. Public gasps at details. Sunday papers revel in particularly gory details. Fintan O’Toole writes a pithy piece which explains the cogent details very succinctly, and then drizzles it in extra-virgin head shaking like a nice salad.

3. Opposition call for unspecified action (“Something must be done! We need action!”) or specific action outside the power of the government. (“Bishops must resign! The effect on water of gravity must be reversed!”)

4. Government shakes heads, and promises that said event (Clerical child abuse/flooding/banking corruption/asteroid crashing into the Earth) must never be permitted to happen again, and calls for commission to investigate report of commission which investigated incident.

5. Media, political establishment, voters, realising that they actually play golf/went to school/are second cousin of individuals named in report, start calling for “due process” to be observed, and instead focus on details of events as if they were some abstract natural disaster.

6. The lawyers get involved. People’s right to “their good name”, passing of time, death of witnesses, gums up process of pursuit of actual criminals, drags investigations, trials, etc, in and out of high court for years.

7. Government takes money off people who did not commit these crimes (Taxes), and gives it to victims. The perpetrators contribution is eaten up in legal fees.

8. Some public officials take early retirement, on full pension. Which is pretty much the equivalent of a modest win in the National Lottery. Nobody goes to jail, except maybe a journalist who reveals how this thing is panning out, and is done for contempt of court.

9. In general election, Irish people vote for same people who allowed scandal to occur, on basis that although he/she failed to act to prevent sexual assault of children/building houses underwater, etc, he/she was always “very good for the area.”

10. In 10 years, another commission reports on poor handling of this scandal. Reset to step 1.

 
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The Immigration Police

blakes sevenRepost.

England, 2023. Five years after Brexit.

The roaring and shouting after England and Wales left the EU was loud and colourful. A generation of politicians who had supported British membership found themselves demonised as Quislings and traitors, and quietly retired from public life, and every ministerial speech was peppered with Eurosceptic hyperbole as the new regime took office.

Over time, however, the EUphoria died away, as the government and the tabloids turned to the issue that had carried the Brexiteers over the line: Immigration.

The new government moved quickly to deliver on the issue. Tough new visa requirements were in place, and whilst existing legal residents were permitted to stay, they could not be joined by relatives, and so as many returned to their home countries they were not replaced. The teary-eyed right-wingers who had choked back stories of Commonwealth citizens (“our kith and kin”), every one of whom seemed to be related to a spitfire pilot, being put behind queues of stony faced Poles, suddenly and bizarrely seemed to go cool on Pakistani and Indian and African immigrants having easier access. The number of people legally entering the UK dropped significantly.

The tabloids, robbed of the EU pinata to mercilessly beat, but knowing that immigration was still the story that stirred the loins, turned their attention to the government. the new line was that the government was full of mealy-mouthed liberals letting people sneakily in. That and the EU was actively conspiring to flood England with immigrants through Ireland, Scotland and Calais, of course.

The government, like all populist governments, was as concerned about how to be seen to be doing something as actually doing something. The truth was that the immigration controls were not delivering the rewards the tabloids had promised. Housing was not cheaper, as fewer immigrants had only freed up the very lowest in housing quality, which in turn had forced landlords to improve the quality but raise rents to pay for it. The vast numbers of manual workers needed to fund large scale building of houses didn’t exist, resulting in builders struggling to find the skilled labourers to do the job. The Irish workers that they could source, due to a common deal with Ireland, expected top dollar, and all that contributed to higher costs and thus higher prices. The NHS and other public services were struggling under staff shortages as it emerged that many of the hard-pressed English white working class didn’t actually have the skills to fill the jobs. But the government was too scared to issue too many working visas to fill those jobs, as the tabloids, bereft of the EU to blame, had now doubled down on ANY immigrant “depriving” Brits of a job. Politically, it was better to leave those jobs empty.

With the labour shortage feeding into wage rises, inflation, public service waiting lists and rental rises, the Government decided to go fully for immigrants as the problem.

The launch of the Immigration Police was a huge media managed affair. The logo of the new force, a union flag in the shape of a shield, was emblazoned on the fleet of shiny new vehicles and officers unveiled by Prime Minister Johnson. The helmeted, combat trousered police, who vaguely resembled the baddies from “Blake’s Seven” but with huge union flags on their shoulders, grinned at the prime minister’s jokes about them “scaring the hell out of him”.

As with everything in post-Thatcher Britain, the Immigration Police was a private for-profit tendered service, the contract held by a huge security company with a very mixed record.

Within months of commencing operations, the IP was the new source of fury for the right-wing tabloids. The fact that a significant number of IP officers were themselves illegal immigrants who had gotten through the cut-price vetting process resulted in the resignation of the Home Secretary, and the tender holder announcing that it could no longer fulfill the contract under such arduous “red tape”. The subsequent taking of the company to court by the Home Office resulted in even more embarrassing revelations including the fact that some immigrant IP officers from some countries seemed to be using their very considerable IP powers to pursue vendettas against people from other tribal areas or religious groups.

The Government was forced to introduce emergency legislation to nationalise the whole IP organisation, making it a state agency. This, as it always seems to do, then sent costs through the roof as the new IP management, made up of Home Office staff, were more than happy to spend millions on vetting.

Three years after its initial launch the IP had been “purged” of illegal immigrants. It was also running hugely over-budget, requiring cuts elsewhere to feed its huge fiscal maw, and led by a very media savvy chief executive who fended off any attempt to trim the rapidly expanding budget with tales of hordes of terrorists and illegal workers sweeping towards virginal England. The IP’s media budget was very substantial.

Aside from its internal chaos, the daily operations of the IP became problematic. Although initially popular, with black cab drivers beeping their horns at speeding IP vehicles, sirens flashing, off to defend England, the reality of the organisation’s nebulous task began to take the shine off rapidly. The new Home Secretary, of Asian extraction and from the hard-right of the party, was adamant that the IP must be visibly active which led to huge poster campaigns asking the public to cooperate. One stand-up comedian likened the posters to the “Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!” posters of the 200oAD comic character Thomas De Torquemada. The IP also started setting up random street checkpoints, which began to jar even with the most right-wing of blazer-wearing golf club Mosleys. Camera footage of IP officers singling out dark-skinned pedestrians alone caused a row, and in one case a riot where a number of black and East Asian youths proceeded to beat up the aggressive IP officers. This resulted in the local police having to intervene.

Indeed, relations between the IP and the regular police were strained at best. In London, where the Metropolitan Police had made a serious effort to diversify its membership, the jarring approach of the IP did not go down well. The commissioner complained that the IP was stirring up racial tension in areas where painstaking work by community police officers had finally started to show results. One incident in particular, where two Metropolitan Police officers challenged an overly aggressive IP checkpoint resulted in the IP officer in charge demanding that one of the officers, who was black, prove his legal status in the country and then attempted to arrest him. The situation, again all over the web, was only contained when the Met officers called in an armed SO19 unit and arrested the entire IP patrol to loud cheering and applause from local youths of mixed races.

The Home Secretary was furious. The commissioner backed her men, and when the Home Secretary threatened to fire the commissioner, the commissioner revealed that she had a special investigation unit looking into penetration by the far-right of the IP. She revealed taped footage from an undercover officer of IP officers, who were revealed to be members of various white supremacist organisations, joking and laughing at how they were paid “by one **** to fit up other ****** and ****”.

The Home Secretary was gone by teatime.

Another source of problems for the new Home Secretary was how to verify someone was legally resident in the UK. His officials excitedly dusted off an old file: a National Identity Card. Not surprisingly, he balked at the idea, but the issue was unavoidable. In order to avoid charges of racial profiling, IP checkpoints were now stopping and demanding identification from every person, regardless of age, colour or gender. Many people were now carrying their passports with them everywhere, and the grumbling was beginning. In time honoured fashion, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, having demanded a “get tough crackdown” on immigration, now did a u-turn and started banging on daily about the IP being a version of the Gestapo harassing ordinary Brits going about their business.

The Home Secretary stared blankly at his officials. Polls showed that middle England was vehemently against having to carry “papers”. Is this what we fought a war for? On the other hand, without some form of verified state backed ID, his officials said, there was no way for the IP to check on-the-spot. Unless, we created a national biometric database, one junior official mused. Then we wouldn’t have to carry ID, just be scanned. Of course, we’d have to scan the entire population.

The Home Secretary died in the ambulance on the way to hospital. The coroner said it was a massive heart attack.

The huge camp near Dover (christened Camp Boris by the media) was also the problem of the new Home Secretary. Since Brexit, the EU had decided that illegal immigration into the UK was not its concern, and so turned a blind eye to migrants making their way across the channel. France had announced that the UK could do its own border control in Dover, and closed its facilities in Calais, the infamous “jungle”. French, Belgian and Dutch police and coastguards were told that preventing “outflows” were not a priority, to the extent that many boat owners on the continent were taking a few quid for carrying illegals to the edge of the UK’s territorial waters and letting their passengers take their chance in a rubber dinghy. All to huge protests from the British ambassador to the EU who was embarrassingly filmed being kept back by security personnel as he tried to lobby ministers attending an EU council meeting.

Huge resources were being deployed along beaches in the south east to capture illegals, and send them to the camp, which now had over 9,000 residents. The decision as to who should run the camp had turned into one of the finest games of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel in years. The Prison Service had said that they were a criminal rehabilitation service, and weren’t suited. The NHS said they weren’t a prison service. The local police said they would have to take “Bobbies off the beat”, and the chief of staff of the army had threatened to publicly resign if the army were told to run the camp. So, it had ended up with the Immigration Police, whose CEO had happily accepted the task then submitted a huge budget supplement request which took the IP’s annual funding clear of the Metropolitan Police’s £3.7 billion.

With scandals within the IP, the ongoing battle to secure the coast (most of the Royal Navy, including the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, were on coastal patrol), the growing unhappiness with the overt and hostile street presence of IP officers demanding “papers” on street corners, the outbreak of riots in Camp Boris was not welcomed by the Government. The IP officers, even with riot gear, struggled to maintain order in two days of rioting. On the third day a large group of young Syrian refugees charged the perimeter, panicking a member of one of the IP armed response units. Without authorisation he emptied his full clip into the crowd, killing nine refugees and wounding another four. Three children were killed in the stampede from the fence. The image went worldwide, and resulted in massive demonstrations against UK embassies.

The Home Secretary, who had only authorised the creation of armed units of the IP three months earlier, in response to stories of some refugees being armed with knives, handed in his resignation to the Prime Minister later that day. The PM was harangued in the house, and in a fit of pique that was typical but would come to haunt him, announced that he would be his own home secretary.

He arrived down to the camp bearing his name just as another riot was getting into its own. Outside the camp, hundreds of young and middle-aged white men, members of the self-appointed United Kingdom Defence Force gathered with baseball bats and crowbars, telling the gathered media they were there to back up the IP and “back Boris”. Another crowd, larger than the UKDF, were made up of anti-fascist protesters who roared abuse at the first crowd.

When the PM arrived, the UKDF cheered and chanted his name, prompting him to wave just as another surge broke through the IP line and charged towards the main gates. The UKDF surged forward before breaking into a Braveheart-style run at the main gate of the camp. The two groups met. The UKDF, unlike the refugees, were armed with a variety of weapons and ploughed into the refugees.

The PM’s bodyguards shoved him into his car, screaming at the driver to get them out of there, all live on TV as a huge fight broke out around them. The IP commander, totally overwhelmed, ordered the use of rubber bullets and water cannon, all aimed at securing the main gate. Some of the baton rounds hit UKDF members, who, seeing the IP firing at them, were overcome with the fury that can only come from experiencing treachery, and attacked the IP vehicles.

The news of the surge at the gate of the camp swept through the camp, encouraging thousands more to rush the entrance, overwhelming the IP officers at the door.

On his way back to Downing street, the PM gave the order for the army to be sent in with more baton rounds.

By evening, order had been restored, but half of the residents of the camp had fled. 39 people were dead, a mixture of refugees, children, IP officers and UKDF members.

In Munich that night a far-right group held a rally, holding aloft images of the British prime minister as they sieg heiled in support.

Watching this on TV, the PM had the good grace to vomit.

 
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LPT debate reveals the last great taboo of Irish politics.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 26, 2018 in Irish Politics

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

Many years ago I was asked to carry out a workplace investigation involving an employee who was accused of being rude and aggressive towards his fellow employees. He wasn’t Irish, and I was surprised at the allegations as I’d always found him to be perfectly reasonable and courteous. I gathered evidence, listened to the people who were making the complaint, and made sure that I was discreetly in his vicinity during many of his dealings with individuals.
Very quickly the problem became clear.
He wasn’t actually being aggressive or rude in any objective sense. What he was being was very straightforward in his dealings with his overwhelmingly Irish colleagues, to the point of brusqueness. He spoke with a very clear, very proper received pronunciation accent. Objectively, he was fine, but to Irish ears, used to someone going around the houses in both conversation and in requests, his bluntness was very sharp indeed.
I pulled him aside for a discreet chat, and he was appalled at hearing that he had upset people. Soon he was learning to be as vague and obtuse as any Irishman.
We’re not a straightforward people. If dancing around an issue were an Olympic sport we’d be collectively dripping in gold. I was reminded once again of this at times unhelpful trait listening to discussions last week about the possibility of Local Property Tax (LPT) valuations being looked at again in 2019.
There were so many Irish people dancing around the subject that I was waiting for a stirring Bill Whelan soundtrack to accompany it.
Let’s be very unIrish and cut straight to the chase.
The purpose of LPT is to raise tax revenue for the provision of public services. Whether provided by the county council or national government, that’s how it is spent.
LPT is levied on the valuation of property to permit for a wider more stable taxbase focused on a high value asset.
The high value asset in particular, property, has a tendency to rise in value, particularly in this nation of aspiring Bull McCabes, thus requiring revaluation on relatively regular basis.
As a general rule, there tends to be a connection between owning a high value asset and wealth. Not always, but more often than not. Certainly enough that a country serious about maintaining a stable and varied taxbase simply can’t afford to ignore it.
Therefore, if you want to maintain or increase public spending you have to be willing to look at increasing sources of taxation and LPT is the obvious candidate.
If you don’t want to increase LPT, which is a perfectly reasonable desire, then you must be willing to forgo increases in spending.
There’s the taboo, the last great unmentionable in Irish public life that neither voters nor the candidates seeking their first preferences wish to speak of, the “Scottish Play” of Irish life.
That taxes like LPT are directly linked to the services one wishes to receive from the state.
Wash your mouth out with soap and water, using that filthy talk!
Poor old Pascal Donohoe, Minister for Loaves & Fishes, comes barrelling onto the stage doing his best Flatley, desperately trying to figure out a way of paying for stuff with a tax that nobody wants to pay.So instead we dance around the issue.
That it’s an anti-Dublin tax.
That there is no connection between what is collected and what is spent locally, or at least, it isn’t visible.
Then there’s the old chestnut voiced by every party when in opposition and ignored in government: local government reform. Reform being code in Irish politics for “We reckon voters like to hear us talk about change, which we’re against, so let’s talk endlessly about the need for consensus before we change anything.” Remember when we were promised that if you voted for Seanad retention, a reformed upper house would be just around the corner? That aul guff. Anything to avoid having to debate the kernel of the issue in public.
Where I live, in the fine county of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, we have a good council. We have brand new very impressive children’s playgrounds and a very swish new library. Who decided to spend the money on them? I have no idea, because how decisions are made are so vague that I just assume it’s nothing to do with the elected councillors and instead every to do with the county chief executive and his team.
That’s not me being cynical about councillors, just recognising our system: the county manager spends our taxes, the councillors do a form of weekly interpretative dance as to his decisions. But ask yourself this: if you’re not happy with how the council is run, who do you fire at election time?
We should confront reality. Reevaluate property values as planned, but let councils have 100% control over LPT rates. If some counties are experiencing sharp upticks in property values, then all the more reason for those counties to cut the rate of LPT to ensure that those owners still pay similar actual cash amounts as before reevaluation.
Say this to the political class and they baulk at the idea, for one fair reason. Do that, they say, and “other” councillors (never them, you understand) will just slash the LPT to zero and then blame everybody else for the massive cuts in services that will lead to.
They’re probably right.
Which leads me back to the fact that in order to have tax accountability voters must know exactly who sets their taxes and budgets, and how to oust them. So the reckless yahoo who does cut LPT by 100% is the same yahoo who then has to explain why this library and that park and that vocational college are closing.
At the heart of the property tax conundrum is the fact that no one gains from actually explaining why we have to have the damn thing in the first place. We end up with the grotesque scenario of populists of the left competing with each other to cut taxes, then feigning indignation when there is no revenue available to fund services they now demand.
The solution is something I saw once in an episode of the 1970s spy action series “The Professionals”, where the show’s stars, unable to disarm a bomb, instead handcuff the uncooperative bombmaker to his own bomb. Suddenly, with literal skin in the game, he becomes very invested in disarming it.
That’s what we need now, to strap the politicians to their own folly. Give one directly elected mayor in each county control over the LPT and county budget, and the ability to be fired directly by the county’s voters. Put their name, face, party and signature on every LPT bill that goes through every letter box. Suddenly he or she will become very concerned with defending budgetary decisions in the county, and making sure the voters appreciate exactly why LPT is at the level it is at and how it is spent. They’ll have to, because they’ll be able to hear the ticking getting louder and louder as polling day approaches and they can’t point the finger at anyone else.

 
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British politics needs a bit of Irish in it.

Previously 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.

 
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Would you die for Estonia?

Posted by Jason O on Nov 1, 2018 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

estonian-troopsPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

The story of the Choctaw nation of Native Americans donating $170 towards Irish famine relief in 1847 is not a new one. As a country, we’re well aware of this act of generosity by a community which had its own hardships and painful history. The donation always for me holds a special place as an extraordinary act of nobility and honour, a generous gesture towards a people of whom they knew little. Indeed any Irish that they encountered were more than likely members of the United States Army who are forcing Native Americans to leave their tribal lands as the United States expanded westwards.

I’m bringing up the Choctaw nation within the context of our ongoing national debate about neutrality. We’re not the first neutral country in these times to reexamine existing policies: Finland and Sweden have both opened formal communication lines with NATO, whereas Austria’s Freedom Party foreign policy leadership seems to be setting itself up as some form of Kremlin dance partner.

In looking at our own position, the example of the Choctaw should play a role. What would we do if a small nation like Estonia, on the Russian border, like us a nation with a shared history of brutal imperial oppression were to find its democratic sovereignty threatened once again by Russian force?

Is it our business?

If the Russians were a direct military threat from the air to us it means that NATO forces have probably collapsed right across Europe and we will be very much at the mercy of far more serious military outcomes than the odd Russian plane flying over Mayo or Donegal.

The army will be be far busier burning uniforms and burying arms to fight the occupation.

Therefore if we are to have a debate about neutrality it has to be one about morality and indeed about a sense of national honour. We have to decide what sort of nation we are, an exercise every thing from industrial schools to abortion proves we’re not great at.

Supposing the Kremlin provoked civil unrest in the Baltic states among the minority Russian communities and then used those public disturbances as a pretext to send Russian forces across the border to supposedly to protect their minority.

What would be the response of Ireland as a nation?

If Estonian or Lithuanian or Latvian governments pleaded with other free democracies to please send military aid to assist in the defence of their countries what would we as a nation say?

A cold-hearted analysis of national interest will probably come to the conclusion that in the short term this is not our problem. It’s true that we wouldn’t be found wanting in terms of grandstanding and demanding that the United Nations take some sort of action to prevent this. But we know full well that the United Nations is merely the sum of its parts and in a conflict between the Atlantic and the Kremlin the United Nations would be completely powerless.

Other than providing us with a platform from which to do some absolutely top class hand wringing, the people of Estonia watching their sons and daughters in combat gear on their streets, fighting Russian tanks door to door with machine guns and shoulder launched anti-armour missiles would take little comfort in our declarations of woe.

Nor would the rest of Europe, I suspect, as their soldiers fought and died in the Baltics to try and liberate those three countries.  

Let’s be clear: the contribution of our permanent defence forces to fighting in the Baltics would be very very limited indeed. As a result of PESCO and other cooperation within the EU and also recent expenditure by both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments our military are far more compatible now with the militaries of the rest of Europe in terms of capability, compatibility and equipment. But our contribution would still be fairly limited, probably to no more than a few hundred troops and aside from special forces probably more in terms of support, explosive ordnance and battlefield medical aid.

But that doesn’t mean that an Irish contribution does not matter.

1000 professional and well equipped troops from Europe’s 10 smallest countries is suddenly 10,000 troops which is not an insignificant number in the highly mobile fighting that will almost certainly occur in such a conflict. That’s why our troops need to train with other EU troops to maintain tactical compatibility so that at least we as every other country in Europe has will have the capability to contribute towards of the defence of our continent if we so choose.

That still leaves us with the fundamental question: would we contribute troops, knowing full well that it is almost guaranteed that many will not come back alive.

Should our soldiers be allowed be allowed refuse to go?

I’ve no doubt that the debate would be furious, widespread, emotional and above all incredibly divisive with the default position being not to send troops and that it is none of our business.

The problem with that position is that it will not be in isolation. Not only will Ireland be watched by the rest of Europe as to where it stands, but also let us not forget the thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians who live in our country, work beside us, who we are married to and have children with.

We suddenly turn to to them and tell them to their faces that your family dying from Russian invasion is not our problem? We just don’t care?

Nor will we be able to turn our backs on the refugees from the Baltic states, many of whom presumably will flee to Ireland as possibly one of the safest places in Europe.

Refugees who are EU citizens and have as much a right to come here as anywhere else and many of whom will have family here ready to provide shelter and refuge from the war.

Maybe we will try to say that providing refuge is our contribution to the war effort, that we can be like the Choctaw and perhaps those countries will be grateful not for the prowess of our fighting men and women but for the fact that whilst their fighting men and women fight the Russians we will make sure that their families will be safe and sheltered and cared for.

Perhaps that will be the Irish contribution and it would not be an insignificant one.

Finally there is always the option that the Irish have always exercised, from the days of the Wild Geese through to World War II, Vietnam and even today in the modern French Foreign Legion.  That Ireland as a nation does not fight, but that many of its young men and women go off and fight under a different flag, perhaps the flags of the Baltic states or Finland or Britain or France or Poland?

Perhaps the minister for defence should quietly ask the chief of staff to put in place a procedure where Irish soldiers who wished to fight alongside their continental colleagues could be quietly put on indefinite sabbatical and discreetly transported, with their equipment but without Irish flags on their uniforms to fight alongside whichever armed forces they would join.

I have no doubt in my mind that there will be no shortage of Irish volunteers to play the part of the defence of our continent.

In short, perhaps Ireland will not go to war but the Irish will?

 
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Should we look at a Universal Basic Income? Dare we?

Posted by Jason O on Oct 3, 2018 in Irish Politics

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition: 

The concept of politicians using public money to win votes is an old one. One can trace the phrase “bread and circuses” right back to imperial Rome, and listening to last week’s debate on the so-called “Granny grant” it’s fair to say the concept is alive and well in Ireland.

What caught my eye about the debate was the particularly Irish flavour to it. I’d been reading about the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the granny grant debate made me change direction: not just to look at UBI but look at it through the prism of Irish politics.

Both UBI and the granny grant have superficial similarities.

Both are, on the face of it, about giving “free” money, not that there ever is such a thing, to voters.

But then they diverge.

The granny grant is a barely disguised “Please, for the love of Jesus, vote for me” ploy.

UBI is a thoughtful concept that could potentially revolutionize modern society.

What unites them?

Watching last week’s debate, the near certainty that both will become sordid and a waste of good money if Irish politicians are let get their sweating paws all over them.

The granny grant is just plain nonsense. It would probably be cheaper to let Shane Ross walk up and down the streets of Dublin-Rathdown with a security van behind him, handing out €50 notes to all comers.

At least we wouldn’t have the pretend bureaucracy and could all be honest about what’s going on here.

But the basic income concept, which keeps popping up across the west, is a whole different beast. The idea is not to get a politician re-elected, but to radically reform the welfare state and prepare society for the possibility of a more automated age of underemployment.

The core of UBI is that every resident gets a fixed guaranteed income from the state every month.

Regardless of income, without any means-testing, straight into your bank account.

You don’t have to lift a finger, do a training course, sign on, prove you’re searching for work.

Sounds like a populist socialist utopia, right?

The funny thing about UBI is that both the socialist left and the free market right see something attractive in it, to such a degree that it’s like neither side fully grasp what they’re looking at.

For the left it’s liberating. A safety net for all. No more pushy welfare bureaucrats hassling you.

For the right it’s also liberating. No more pushy welfare bureaucrats.

See what I did there?

It’s at this point the left shift uneasily.

Because that’s the point of UBI. It permits the state to shrink: who needs welfare bureaucrats if people just get the money without quibble?

Then there’s the abolition of most other welfare payments, which is how you fund it, and also get rid of the welfare trap.

People are no longer discouraged from working because the danger of losing their existing welfare payments will no longer exist.

In short UBI would reward those who choose to work.

In fact, if you want those in receipt of a basic income to benefit from the new means-test free ability to work it may then make more sense to abolish the concept of a minimum wage.

This is because such a system would then permit employers to create a much greater variety of piecemeal opportunities for extra earning, at a lower rate than the current minimum wage.

If you think this sounds very right wing, almost Dickensian, you’re probably right.

But what if it encouraged older workers with lower living costs to retire earlier, letting them focus on the volunteer work they currently do in their spare time? Are there people that UBI would allow to focus primarily on their Tidy Towns committee or coaching the local u16s team?

Socially, would that be a bad thing? I suspect not.

Having said that, there are also solid left wing arguments against the basic income.

It’s universality, the idea that everybody should get it would, you’d expect, ensure that there is broad popular support for it, as there is for the NHS in the UK or children’s allowance here.

But that very universality means that resources which would traditionally have been targeted to the poor through a means-tested system will now end up in the hands of, in many cases, people who do not actually need the additional income.  

This is a big issue because as we have seen in the United States a social welfare system that is not seen to be applicable to all classes means that there is no broad political consent for it.  Since the 1960s the right-wing of the Republican party has campaigned on a nudge nudge wink wink platform that social welfare is not for the white working classes but only for the fabled black welfare queens of Ronald Reagan.

It’s a huge quandary at the heart of any society that wishes to debate whether to accept a basic income or not. By its very nature building broad support is a good thing, but what if it increases the likelihood of the poor getting less money under the new system?

Not that UBI is right-wing to the the purist libertarian ultra-right. You know the sort, guys who want to abolish the US Food and Drug Administration, or the European Medicines Agency. They want “the market” to decide about medication.

You know, if a new medicine kills enough people, people will stop buying it. That short of fruitcakery.

They think UBI is dirty socialist wealth redistribution, which, in fairness, it is to a degree, as it will require higher taxes to fund it.

But the more thoughtful people on the right have accepted that capitalism, in its ability to adapt as needed, needs broad support throughout society to survive. Capitalism has always been about recognising that a certain degree of wealth redistribution from top to bottom is required to maintain an economic system which is based essentially on a peaceful consensus and the rule of both property and contract law.

That’s the deal: some people to get very rich and in return a proportion of the wealth they create gets distributed to the parts of society that do not benefit to the same degree as others. It’s yet another variation of the post-war social contract that created a thriving middle-class in the years following 1945.

As a theory, UBI is intriguing. But what happens if it comes into contact with our own home based pols like Shane Ross and his merry men, who have proven that the temptation for Irish politicians to just keep spending other people’s money is almost impossible to resist.

Imagine Ireland managed to scrap the entire social welfare and pension system and replace it all with a non means-tested basic income scheme.

Is there any doubt that Irish politicians would not immediately start to identify sections of Irish society (read: voters) whom they believe merit special treatment and therefore deserve additional payments? It wouldn’t be long before the entire system would becomes unaffordable as Irish politicians continue to allocate more and more spending for the simple reason that they literally cannot think of any other way of getting reelected.

UBI has both compelling strengths and worrying side-effects, but it is, at least, an opening to a debate about employment in an age of mass underemployment.

But could it survive direct contact with the Land of the granny grant?

I have my doubts.

Copyright © 2019 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.