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

Michael McDowell supports gravity shock!

Posted by Jason O on Jul 31, 2010 in Irish Politics

Proponent of inequality, or just plain speaking?

Proponent of inequality, or just plain speaking?

It’s pretty much par for the course now that when Michael McDowell’s possible reentry into politics is discussed, some on the left dig up what is deemed his now “infamous” remarks about inequality. What he said was that a liberal society like ours needs a degree of inequality to function, which is the economic equivalent of saying that if you jump off a cliff, you will almost certainly be pulled downwards by gravity. What’s the problem?

The problem, apparently, is that he accepted the fact that inequality may actually be permitted to exist, and it is at this point that many on the left refuse to continue debate. There is nothing inherently wrong with a society wishing to reduce inequality, provided it is willing to debate what exactly that means, and what it will cost each individual member of that society. The problem is that many of the opponents of inequality don’t really like digging too deeply into the concept, something that Michael McDowell has always been willing to debate.

Should a person who works harder than another be rewarded to a greater extent? Most people would say yes, yet that is the fundamental value at the heart of inequality. Should those who work hard, and generate wealth as a result, show greater charity towards those who cannot work as hard? I would say, morally, yes. But should they show charity towards those who do not wish to work harder? This is the crux: The belief of some that the right to an equal share is greater than the responsibility to mitigate one’s own inequality. In short: If you want to work, go ahead. More power to your elbow, as McDowell has said. Can’t work? Yes, decent people should help you. Won’t work? You’re on your own, pal. The value up for debate here is whether you believe that everyone is entitled to an equal share of a nation’s wealth, regardless of their contribition towards creating it. Let’s debate that.  


A President for Europe: How it could work.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 30, 2010 in European Union

eu-flagSo, here’s the thing: If people like me keep saying that the best way to deal with the EU’s democratic disconnect  is an elected president of the EU, then it is incumbent upon me to try and explain how it would work, and how we deal with, in particular, the “who the hell are these people on my ballot paper?” issue.

By the way, I use the phrase “democratic disconnect” because I feel the old stock answer, democratic deficit, is inaccurate. It’s not that the EU is undemocratic, it’s that its democratic system is so different from what democracy is in the members states (i.e. people win and lose elections, and therefore power) that it is not recognizable to most European voters as democracy. That’s the appeal of merging the Commission and Council Presidents, and then asking Regina in Milano and Ralf in Helsinki to decide on who gets the job? It puts the people’s man at the very top, with his or her own mandate separate from the leaders, and deals with the personality orientated reality of life today, where people invest their confidence in an individual. Barack Obama is, for example, as much a symbol for his opponents as his supporters, in that reelecting or removing him in 2012 will have an effect on what policies the US follows. Europeans do not currently have that choice. Instead we have a permanent three party coalition in the European Parliament that remains no matter what the results. We need winners and losers. 

So, we have the position. How do we elect him (or her)? The key is the nomination process, that is, how candidates should be chosen to appear on the ballot paper. We set a rule that each member state’s national parliament can nominate three candidates, and that all member states let their parliaments have a free vote on deciding those three nominations. It would mean that each parliament could hold a convention day, inviting each candidate to address them, and quiz them on the issues relevent to that country. Chances are that candidates would visit each country a number of times, speaking at meetings to parlimentarians. Indeed, some parties will actually ask their party members to decide whom they should support, and the candidates would address those meetings, gaining more media coverage and gradually entering the public conscience.

 Alternatively, national parliaments could decide to devolve the choice to the people, letting the public vote on the state’s three nominations. How would the public learn about these people? This is where the European parties come in. A French socialist seeking the PES nomination would sit down with the Irish Labour Party, or possibly others, and seek their endorsement, or the endorsement of individual politicians, all of which can be included on the ballot paper as a means of guiding voters. This (endorsements)  is what happens in US, local well-known leaders “introducing” the candidates. If Brian Cowen endorsed, say, Nick Clegg for President, or Enda Kenny endorsed Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, it would not be long before Irish voters would get their measure of the candidates. This would also aid the process of getting media coverage for these unknown candidates. 

Let’s also not forget that the European parties would want to be pretty stupid (not beyond the realms of the impossible, I accept) to attempt to nominate candidates who are either complete unknowns, or incapable of connecting with voters in other countries. It would also be interesting to see the effect of language. A party that nominated a candidate who could only speak Greek, for example, would be at a serious disadvantage.

The nomination process would require a candidate for the European ballot paper to have gathered 20% of the 81 available nominations, which would limit the number of actual candidates to not more than five whilst at the same time ensuring that all successful candidates would have had to win a single nomination in at least 16 member states, ensuring a broad appeal. European parties would cooperate to ensure that they have the votes in the different parliaments, with, say, FDP, VVD,Venstre and Fianna Fail leaders all coordinating to ensure that their MPs vote for a common agreed Liberal candidate. 

Having nominated their candidates, the parties would each be required to nominate three vice-presidential candidates. This is to allow for the candidates to build a platform ensuring both gender representation but also geographical balance, giving voters a better chance of having a connection on the ticket with a nationally known figure. If elected, these VPs would automatically become those member states commissioners.  

The election would be by Alternative Vote. Whilst this would favour the campaign being fought out in the six most populous states, it should be born in mind that the nomination process actually favoured the smaller states, and so one balances out the other.

It’s not a perfect system, but it addresses a key need: At the end of the process, European voters will sit in pubs and restuarants and cafes and some, not all, will have opinions on who should be president. More importantly, they’ll be able to do something about it through their ballot papers. Finally, most of this can be done through national legislation, without a change in the treaties, with the council agreeing to be bound by the outcome, hence avoiding another sodding treaty.   


Joanna Tuffy TD on electoral reform.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 29, 2010 in Irish Politics

tuffyLabour TD Joanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West), whom I’ve been in an email exchange of views with, raises some interesting points about electoral reform here. I don’t agree with everything she said, but she does make some valid points.


Do we actually need the Dail? No, seriously?

Posted by Jason O on Jul 28, 2010 in Irish Politics

Am not convinced we'd miss them.

Am not convinced we’d miss them.

If you were designing a democratic political system from scratch, specific for the political wants of the Irish people, would you honestly start with what we have now? We have a parliamentary system from the 1930s because that is what the Brits had. But supposing we  designed our own unique system. What would you need?

1. A democratically elected government. Have every party propose a slate of 15 ministers, and elect one slate by AV to be the cabinet. I know, it sounds outrageous, but the Dail is effectively only really an electoral college for the cabinet anyway. Everything else it does, from debates to passing the budget and legislating, is all decided at cabinet, where the real debate, if at all, is had. At least this way would reflect the political reality. Incidentally, it would also end coalition government, and make change of government more likely, as every government would automatically be a de facto “majority” government.

2. Oversight of the government. We don’t have this now, because effectively, majority backbenchers are answerable to the cabinet, not the other way around, as the constitution envisages. So let’s appoint a panel of experts with powers to question ministers openly and report on the government’s performance. Save on the salaries of 150 TDs, 60 senators and the infrastructure of Leinster House. Would it work better than the present arrangement? Ask yourself this: Who has done a better job reporting the failings of government: The Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Ombudsman, or 104 opposition politicians costing us 100k each? Do we really need to keep 151 TDs on the public payroll because they quite fancy being ministers, as “spare” ministers, because they sure as hell aren’t legislators.

3. Directly elected mayors in each county, to run them and do the local grafting on social welfare and planning that TDs currently do. Most Irish voters are happy to have a local fixer, so let’s be up front with that.

Seriously, would we be worse off with no Dail and Seanad? What percentage of Oireachtas committee reports were ever acted on? The Dail and Seanad failed to stop the banking crisis, child sex abuse, and corruption. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a “Politicians, what are they good for?” thing. I know that most members of the Oireachtas put in very long hours. I’m just not convinced that most of what they do is very useful or the best use of our finite tax revenues. Is there any country in the western world who looks at their own political system and then say to themselves: “No, the Irish Dail and Seanad. That’s what we need!” 


Cameron/Clegg to engage in wifeswapping party to strengthen coalition.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 27, 2010 in British Politics, Not quite serious.

Deputy PM Clegg briefing Samantha Cameron on what to expect.

Deputy PM Clegg briefing Samantha Cameron on what to expect.

Sources close to the coalition leadership have suggested that the leaders of the coalition parties have agreed to let each other “Have a go” on their respective wives in the near future. “It’s no secret that both David and Nick have formed a solid relationship, even friendship, since the formation of the government. Apparently, over a quiet beer at the end of the day, Nick admitted that he quite fancied Samantha Cameron, whom he felt “has a bit of a naughty schoolgirl thing going on” and David admitted that he found Miriam Clegg a bit of a “spicy latino hottie”. Both men have agreed to broach the subject with their wives. The possibility of a bit of a “drunken fumble after a couples’ dinner and a couple of bottles of Wolf Blass, on a warm summer’s Saturday night” is now clearly on the agenda, say sources. 


Noel Dempsey: Why good people don’t go into politics.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 26, 2010 in Irish Politics

Dempsey: Good, decent, and powerless.

Dempsey: Good, decent, and powerless.

Excellent piece by Noel Whelan here on the disgraceful, shameful cop-out that is the joint Oireachtas committee report on electoral reform. Just think, in Britain they decided in May, have announced the wording this week, and will have referendum in May 2011 on electoral reform. Meanwhile in Ireland we get yet another long finger operation by people we apparently pay to make decisions.

But Noel Whelan raises a bigger point, and it was brought home to me recently at a dinner with political activists. They have all given up and pretty much quit politics. I put the usual argument that is always put to me, and the response was interesting. I said “Surely, you have to be in the system to change it?” The response? “Look at Noel Dempsey. He got to the cabinet with radical ideas on political reform. He got to the cabinet! Higher than most activists ever dream of getting, and yet he is paralysed, can’t do a damn thing on political reform.” It’s a fair point because Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour are one party when it comes to this issue.

One activist made the saddest but most succinct observation I’ve heard in a while, when he told me that he had pretty much a limited amount of time in his life and so why waste it in a political system impervious to change?

Supposing you found a candidate who was committed to political change. Supposing you even helped get them elected. Then what happens? At worst they do a George Lee. At best they become Noel Dempsey.

A plastic bag tax. Have you really got nothing better to do with your time?

It’s easy to say I’m a cynic, but I’m not. Tears rolled down my cheeks when Barack Obama was elected (and I wasn’t alone in that, by the way) but is this country’s politics worth the same committment? Will tears run down anyone’s cheeks when Enda is elected Taoiseach, other than those who have a direct interest in his election? 

The truth is, Irish politics is now the preserve of the “this is quite a good job” crowd. They’ve pretty much won, and the people who give a damn are walking off the pitch looking for another forum in which to do something useful with their lives.


Man’s ingenuity at its finest.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 25, 2010 in Just stuff

Pilot ejects from fighter plane moments before crash

Captain Brian Bews of the Royal Canadian Air Force ejects from his CF-18 Hornet after the engine stalls in a low pass. Pics by AP. Pilot ejects from fighter plane moments before crash


Govt to commission Skeletor to act as all-round cause of nation’s problems.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 24, 2010 in Irish Politics, Not quite serious.

Skeletor: Newly appointed Director of the Office for Evil Affairs.The Dept of the Taoiseach has announced that former 1980s cartoon baddy Skeletor has been commissioned to act as general source of the nation’s problems and universal hate figure. The former Masters of the Universe nemesis of He-Man has welcomed the appointment, and pledged, to polite applause from Dept officials at the launch in Merrion Square, that “soon Dublin Castle will be mine!”

The government has taken the decision after in-depth analysis has shown that the Irish people

FG finance spokesman Michael Noonan TD yesterday.

FG finance spokesman Michael Noonan TD yesterday.

are happiest when they have an all powerful and seemingly indefatigable hate figure to blame for all our failings as a nation. A spokesperson added: “We used to blame the British for everything, and now the banks, but the problem is that evidence is emerging that our economic problems seem to be primarily caused by a mixture of our greed as a nation and general economic incompetence. This obviously doesn’t really suit a nation that has blamed potato infections for plotting against us, so this seems like a sensible option. Other nations have revolutions, or radically change the way the run themselves, but that’s not for us. Now we can feel good blaming Skeletor for all our woes, from unemployment to the price of a pint. We did look at Gargamel from The Smurfs, but the problem is that he just looks too much like Michael Noonan.”


General Election 2012: The choices so far…

Posted by Jason O on Jul 23, 2010 in Irish Politics

We’re 22 odd months away from a general election, which is quite a while, to be honest. Having said that, there’s no harm in having a quick look at what’s actually on offer to the Irish voter:

Fianna Fail/The Greens: I’ve included them together, as it’s fairly likely that if they (miraculously) got enough seats they’d go into a second term. FF would continue with the unimaginative but courageous (for Ireland) and unavoidable cuts in public spending, with the Greens finally finding their feet and beginning to get some traction on reform issues.

Fine Gael: Some tinkering with political reform, a referendum on abolishing the senate and reducing the size of the Dail (neither of which I believe will actually happen) and a compulsory universal healthcare insurance plan which will get bogged down in a quagmire when FG realise that the “money following the patient” will very likely result in the closing of smaller rural hospitals in favour of more efficient regional hospitals (that is, Mary Harney’s policy). Economic policies? Same as Fianna Fail with “Fianna Fail” scratched out and “Fine Gael” written in. In crayon.

Labour:  A convention on a new constitution. Unlike FG, Labour tends to deliver on big idea stuff like this. Only problem is that the document that comes out of the convention will have had so many Labour-friendly NGOs going at it like a hungry octopus trying to open a jar of pickled gherkins that it will be transfer the actual running of the country from the cabinet to the supreme court. Don’t be surprised to find the right to compensation if you’re having a “feeling fat” day shoehorned in. Labour will be hoping that the economy will have begun to recover so that they don’t have to shaft the Hairy Hoxhas of Liberty Hall by not throwing large bags of money at them.

Sinn Fein: This will be a tricky election for the shinners, as Labour’s resurgence is mopping up SF friendly voters, and the fact that SF is in government in the north means that the usual “if only we were in power” spiel doesn’t have quite the same traction, especially as SF will be bringing in cutbacks. The irony is that there probably is room for a nationalist, anti-immigrant, far right party in Irish politics, but SF has now indoctrinated itself so much onto the left as to be (thankfully) incapable of making that political backflip. Unless the lads in Thames House say otherwise, of course.

The Lefty Allsorts: The Higgins/Boyd Barrett jamboree will do alright, although you can’t see them taking more than four seats between them on a really good day, and given the expected ascension of the FG/Labour regime, kinda pointless…


Is the EU fit for purpose?

Posted by Jason O on Jul 21, 2010 in European Union

There are presidents. And then there are Presidents!

There are presidents. And then there are Presidents!

Interesting piece by Charlemagne in The Economist here. It raises a point about the EU, a nagging doubt that has been nibbling away with me since the first Lisbon referendum. I’ve met quite a few people who work or have worked either in or with the EU institutions, and whereas many of them are sound, decent and committed individuals, I’ve been alarmed at the amount of people I met who seem to live in a EU-Brussels bubble that is detached from the ordinary lives of Europeans. The old adage does hold true: If you believe in European Unity, stay the hell away from Brussels.

The problem is that most Europeans are no longer sure what the EU is actually for. They say they are against “Brussels” but try and take away the day to day stuff like free travel and trade and you’d actually have a fight on your hands. Even the euro, which gets demonised by eurosceptics, is nowhere near the object of loathing within the eurozone that it is in Britain. It’s true, of course, that it is flawed by not being supported by a proper fiscal union (something many eurosceptics pointed out at the beginning) but it seems to me that most europeans would be quite happy to retain the multinational currency if it could be made work. Of course, many moderate eurosceptics (and there is such a thing) say that many of those rights could be assured without the EU, but you do need some form of central administration to make this stuff work. They poo-poo this, but it’s a fact, and because we are only asking the EU to do things that we expect national governments to do. Does the EU pass directives and regulations on food packaging? Yes it does. But show me the eurosceptic national minister who will stand up and tell his home audience “Good news! From today, we shall no longer be telling you whether there are peanuts in the food you buy! You are now free! Except for those of you who will be killed by them!”

It isn’t helped by the fact that no one speaks for Europe. I’m old enough to remember Jacques Delors eloquently explaining (and getting coverage doing it) what Europe was actually for. He was so effective that a coalition of nervous Brits and egotistical French leaders have conspired to ensure that never again will Europe have a leader who could match them in stature.  

The EU needs a fit-for-purpose litmus test. It needs to approach every initative from the simple proposition “Are we doing something that could be done better by the member states?” The answer has to be, in many instances, yes. Why is poverty, for example, discussed at an EU level? Surely issues of wealth distribution, and what to do, if anything, are an issue of national culture, and something that can be little effected at Brussels level? If the European Court told us that we must raise VAT by 10% to fund housing for the homeless we’d tell them to mind their own business, so let’s call a spade a spade here.

The problem, as pointed out by Charlemagne, is that many of the solutions proposed by the dwellers of the bubble, such as making the European Parliament the centre of the EU, have absolutely no appeal outside of Brussels and Strasbourg, because they do not reflect the reality of life. What is the point voting in elections to an institution which is run by the same three party coalition no matter what the result? 

I have, in the past, advocated that the President of the Commission and Council should be combined and directly elected by the people of Europe. Opponents of such a plan have always said that such a plan cannot work without a European “demos”, in that how can a voter in Galway decide between, say, A Greek Socialist, a German Liberal and and Dutch Christian Democrat? I accept, it won’t be easy, but it is not impossible, and the end objective is having a man or woman in Brussels whose first loyalty is to keeping the voter in Galway happy and informed. Would that really be such a bad thing?

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