Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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A Non Irishman’s Guide to the Irish Voting System, the Single Transferable Vote.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 30, 2011 in Irish Politics

I was asked a while back to explain the Irish voting system to non-Irish people. Here goes:

Understanding Irish politics begins by understanding our voting system, which shapes everything else. It’s called the Single Transferable Vote, and it works like this. Each constituency has between 3-5 TDs, that is, members of parliament. Voters number the candidates in their order of preference, in any way they wish, including giving different preferences to different parties. Parties can run as many candidates as they wish, but rarely run more than 3 in a 5 seater. Now, the clever ones reading this will have a question already: Does that mean that candidates from the same party are running against each other. The answer is no, because that would be civilised. They are actually trying to slit the other f**ker’s throat because candidates from a party realise that traditionally, a party may only win a single seat in that particular constituency, and so you are running to beat your running mate in the hope of getting his transfers.

Getting his what? Ah, this is when it gets tricky. Or fun, depending whether you’re sweating at the count, or watching on telly as grown men and women (it’s OK, they’re politicians, not real people) get ready to crack. Now, pay attention to this bit, because this is how it works.

Voters mark their ballots. First preferences are counted, that is, how many voters put a number “1″ beside their favourite candidate. When the first preferences are counted, the quota is determined. This is the maximum number of votes needed to be elected, and is calculated by dividing the number of first preferences by the number of seats plus one, and adding one to the total. So, if you get more than the quota, you are automatically elected. Those votes are “used up”. However, any votes in excess of the quota are deemed the surplus, and are distributed to the candidates given a second preference by individual voters.

The candidate with the lowest remaining first preference is then eliminated, and their votes are distributed to the next choice on the respective ballot papers, and so on until all seats are filled.

As a system, it has its strengths and weaknesses. It makes the voting system very personalised. But it also forces deputies to pay attention to their constituents, and unlike the mickey mouse system used in the UK, first past the post, it is actually fair, reasonably proportional, and voters can vote for whomever they want without “letting someone else in”. It also makes politicians cry.

By the way, you can see a video version of this explained by Andrea Pappin of www.plaintalking.ie and I from the last general election. Using custard creams. And a hippo. You can see it here.   

 
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Writing political fiction.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 28, 2011 in eNovels & Writing

As many of you will know, I recently uploaded my first novel, “The Ministry of Love”, up onto Amazon (Available to US/Ireland here, UK here), and since I’ve done that, some of you have been in touch on the topic of writing fiction.

It’s an odd mix, being interested in politics and writing fiction, in a way, because Irish politics does not go to the lofty aspirational heights of US politics. Instead, our politics tends to be of the ultra-pragmatic “whatever works” style.

I have to admit, though, that I find writing fiction about politics, as I did in the novel, and elsewhere, to be a great antidote to the disappointment that so often emerges from  real politics. You can, as Shaw said, see things that never were, and ask why not?

Some years ago, I wrote a short novella, which I never published, about Irish politics. It was set during the Celtic Tiger, and reads quite oddly now, given the situation Ireland finds herself in today. But what was interesting when I wrote it, and the various fairly fantastic political situations that occurred in it, was that every time I came to an unbelievable plot point, I would ask myself: why could this not happen in real life, in real politics?

The answer I kept coming across  was not that there were legal or social or even economic reasons why something could not be done. It was that our politicians don’t do anything unless they cannot avoid it. They’re not conservative or even reactionary. They’re just inert. That’s the greatest satisfaction about writing political fiction. In it, you can write about politicians who actually want to do things.

 
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The Bread Patrol: An Economic Fairytale.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 27, 2011 in Irish Politics, Not quite serious.

We demand bread!

We demand bread!

There once was a kingdom ruled by a king who wanted, above everything else, to be loved by his people. So he borrowed and borrowed loads of gold and distributed it throughout the kingdom. Everybody got some, and all were happy and shouted “Don’t we have a wonderful king!” Some used the gold to start blacksmiths and bakeries, selling bread and pots and horseshoes of the highest quality to all, and made much more gold as they sold their goods, and built fine houses for themselves.
Suddenly, the king discovered that he could not borrow any more gold, and that, in fact, they would have to pay it back.
There was outrage in the land, and people pointed fingers at the king. Many claimed that they had not received any gold at all, and that others had gotten more gold because the king favoured them.
“We must rise up!” Shouted a young nobleman, Richard of the Red Flag, or Red Richard as he was known. Great crowds gathered around Richard, so big that the king fled the kingdom and Red Richard was pronounced The People’s King.
“We need gold!” The people cried.
Richard approached the other kingdoms that had lent the old king the gold.
“Lend us Gold!” He demanded.
“We did. And you have not paid us back.” They replied. 
“But that was the old king. That’s nothing to do with us.” Said Richard, but they weren’t having any of it.
He returned to the kingdom empty-handed.
“We need gold!” The people cried, a bit louder this time.
Richard looked around the kingdom for gold. Who had it? The bakers and the blacksmiths!
“You must give us your gold! It is not fair that you have more gold than anyone else.” He demanded.
“But we bake bread and make pots to sell to people.” They said.
“That’s neither here nor there. I’m confiscating your gold, so that it can be shared amongst all equally!”
The people cheered. The bakers and blacksmiths booed.
With that, they packed up their belongings and left the kingdom.
The king distributed the gold.
“But who shall bake the bread?” The people asked.
“The people shall! It shall be the people’s bakery!” The king announced, and there were cheers.
The following morning, the king posted a list of who shall work in the bakery. Everybody would share the task, and so it began. But some citizens did not bake bread very well. And others got up later than they should, and others still did not like bread and wanted to work on their farms. The bakery did not make enough bread for all, and people had to buy bread from traders from other kingdoms at much higher prices, so Richard decided that he would pay people to be the people’s bakers. But as he had no gold, he had to raise the price of bread to pay for bakers.
This worked for a while, and the bakers made enough bread, until the bakers approached the king and said “This is hard work. We have to rise earlier than anyone else to mill the flour and bake the bread, so we should get an Unsociable Hours Allowance. The king agreed, and raised the price of bread to pay for it.
A week later, the bakers spoke to the king again.
“It’s not fair.” They said. “We work harder than anyone else. We should be able to retire earlier.”
Richard thought about this, and agreed. It was only fair. So he raised the price of bread again to pay for their pensions.
Then a farmer, noting the rising cost of bread, announced that he could make bread cheaper, and began selling cheaper bread.
Richard was horrified to discover that the people’s bakery was losing money, and so banned the farmer from baking bread. So the farmer decided to open a bakery across the border, in another kingdom, outside of Richard’s reign.
The bakers protested to Richard.
“We cannot be expected to take less money for the bread, just because he can make it cheaper.”
Richard agreed, and hired a group of militiamen to form a Bread Patrol, to prevent people bringing in bread from outside the kingdom. Of course, once again he had to raise the price of bread to pay for The Bread Patrol. This made bread so expensive that now, all over the kingdom, farmers were secretly baking and selling bread cheaper than the people’s bakery, and making plenty of gold doing it.
Richard hired more and more militiamen to form bread patrols to close down the illegal bakeries, but there were too many, and as he had to raise the price of bread to pay for the extra militiamen, even the bread patrol could not afford to buy enough people’s bakery bread. So instead, when they raided bakeries, the bakers would pay them off. In bread.
Suddenly, there was so many bakeries making bread that Richard could not afford to pay the people’s bakers, who went on strike. But nobody noticed, as everyone was buying their bread from the secret bakeries.
Soon, the secret bakers were getting very wealthy, and the people were once again demanding more gold.
Richard, looking at the rich bakers, had an idea. He would confiscate their gold! 

The end.

 
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5 things that scare the crap out of me about US politics.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 26, 2011 in US Politics

This flag used to stand for the good guys.

This flag used to stand for the good guys.

There’s a scene in one of those 1980s action movies when US commandos are sent in to rescue some hostages. At first, the hostages, not all Americans, I don’t think, are frightened by the arrival of group of heavily armed men. Then one of the men pulls back a velcro anti-glare patch to reveal a US flag underneath, and the hostages are relieved. The good guys had arrived.

That scene always stayed with me, even after I had forgotten the name of the film, because it reminded me that for years the US and her flag were a symbol of good in the world. It’s much more ambiguous now, and the main reason for that has been the troubling direction that US politics has been heading. In that spirit, I thought I’d put together a few of the things that really worry me about the state of US politics today.

1. The presence of hate in politics. There’s an argument that George Herbert Walker Bush, the dad, was the last president that the overwhelming majority of Americans accepted as “their” president. When he was elected in 1988, the Dems controlled Congress, and it wasn’t seen as a big deal. They worked with him, he worked with them. Yes, they were Democrats and Republicans, but they were all sent to do the people’s business, and respected each other for that. Compare that with Michele Bachmann demanding investigations into how American the Democratic Party is. To see Jon Huntsman getting attacked for agreeing to serve his country as US ambassador to China was not only deplorable. It was terrifying to think that having foreign policy experience in dealing with America’s greatest rival is regarded as a liability in the GOP, because you served under President Obama. Does that mean he’d be a better president if he didn’t have that experience? Seriously? The danger is that every election is turning into something equating a civil war, where the other side beat us this time, so let’s fight a guerrilla war for the next four years, questioning their legitimacy and try to paralyse their ability to govern until we counterattack at the next election.

2. Money matters too much. It’s too simple to say that whomever spends the most wins. If that were true, we’d have had a President Perot and President Forbes, and Arianna Huffington would probably still be a Republican. Also, the web has been proven by both Howard Dean and President Obama as being an effective way for small donors to have a very serious impact on a campaign. Having said that, the truth is that big corporate donors do have a serious impact on politics in a way that their numbers as voters simply do not warrant. However, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that poor people just don’t have the same sort of disposable income to spend on politics campaigns as, say, the Koch brothers. Does that mean that one working joe’s vote should count less than the vote of a Koch brother? After all, the US Supreme Court effectively equating one’s amount of free speech to one’s disposable income seems to make that call. By that logic, why not just let voters buy as many votes as they can afford? Campaign finance reforms that have, at their heart, an aim of ensuring that voters get to hear a reasonably equal contribution from each candidate are not a restriction on freedom of speech.

3. Refusing to even listen to the other guy. When I was in New York last year, I watched MSNBC, and was shocked at how biased it was. I’d read that they were effectively the liberal version of Fox News, but it was really quite disturbing to watch an entire news operation filled with people agreeing with each other, and absolutely savaging, in this case, a Tea Party activist who, in my opinion, was making a valid if disagreeable point. Now, Fox is no better, and as a liberal, I’m obviously going to be biased against Fox News. But I do watch it, just to hear what the other guy is saying, because sometimes the other guy is right. Yet when I hear Sarah Palin et al almost taking pride in only listening to news (she doesn’t seem to read) that comes from a standpoint she agrees with, I find that disturbing. How on Earth can voters make a rational choice in an election when they don’t even listen to what the other guy is saying?

4. The micro managing of politics. It happens in every Western country, but the Americans are so far ahead that democracy is actually being hollowed out from the inside. What do I mean? Take redestricting, where both parties can now use technology to such a degree that huge tranches of the House of Representatives or lower state offices are effectively one party states, where the general election is just a rubber stamp election. Or what about the presidential debates, where nearly every phrase has been polled and focus tested? Or what about candidates arriving to pre-screened crowds holding up “handmade” signs that have actually been manufactured by the campaign, misspellings and all? The fact is, US politicians now have access to so many manipulative tools that it is now possible to elect to office people who 20 years ago would not be deemed fit for that office, whether it’s Sarah Palin or Oprah Winfrey, because emotional manipulation of voters, although not a new thing (ask Goebbels) is now at a technical level unprecedented in human history.

5. The disparaging of experience and learning. Ask yourself this: If a candidate calls another candidate an “intellectual”, is he or she being nice about their opponent? Sarah Palin has taken insular parochialism to a new level. Is she really that ignorant of the world, or is she such a savvy politician that she recognises that in today’s America a candidate who admits to being able to speak French is actually doing himself an injury? The other curious development in politics (it started in the 1970s, probably with Reagan and Carter, although George Wallace in 1968 made his contribution too) is the “elitification” of one’s opponents, where actually having worked in Washington, or actually knowing how the political system works is now held against one. The irony is that these anti-politics campaigns tend to be run by professional political operatives and consultants who have done little with their lives other than professional politics.

Don’t get me wrong: US politics has many strengths. But this is the ugly stuff, and where America goes…

 
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The big elephant in the EU room.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 25, 2011 in European Union

Hey, Hermann, what's that thing with the big ears doing over there by the translation booth?
Hey, Hermann, what’s that thing with the big ears doing over there by the translation booth?

Here’s the thing. The current crisis in Europe isn’t just a Greek or German or Irish or Portuguese problem, it’s a European one. Our economies are so integrated, and not just through the euro, that there is now such a thing as a European interest. Yet there is no one actually responsible for dealing with “Europe” as a whole. Chancellor Merkel (rightly) worries first about her German electors. Taoiseach Kenny worries about his Irish ones. Same with prime minister Papandreou and president Berlusconi and president Zapatero. No one is looking at the sum crisis as it affects all 500 million of us.

Europe is going to have to address the fact that there is no one at the top table worrying about what voters in Galway and Gstadt are thinking, and as long as we fail to incentivize some guy or gal to worry about those voters, we’re not going to see any European leadership.

And there’s more. If we do start heading towards a Eurobond fiscal (almost typed fecal there. How Freudian!) union type scenario, I’m not sure that I, even as a committed European integrationist, will be willing to vote for it if the democratic thing isn’t worked out,      and that means me walking into a polling station and deciding who I want to be president of Europe, not Angela and Nicolas over dinner. 

 
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Things that could happen if we left the Euro.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 24, 2011 in European Union, Irish Politics

I’m not an economist, but assuming that An Punt Nua would be devalued:

1. Tourism, and employment in tourism, would improve, at least from countries with stronger currencies like Switzerland and Germany.

2. Exports would initially be stronger. Non-food exports would eventually rise in cost to some degree as the cost of importing raw materials would rise.

3. Fuel prices would rise sharply.

4. Imported product prices would also rise sharply, possibly costing jobs in the retail sector.

5. Mortgage interest rates would probably rise sharply to protect the new currency. Political debate about who sets interest rates would become an issue. Would opposition parties pledge to bring the setting of mortgage rates under political control, and what effect would that have on the currency?

6. Foreign holidays to non-devalued countries would become much more expensive, boosting domestic tourism, presumably.

7. Exchange rates and charges would be back.

8. There would be a huge capital outflow as savings are moved out, into Sterling, etc, on the assumption that the new currency will fall in value, and could then be bought at a lower costs in the future, thus allowing savers to make a substantial profit. Would the government need to control how much money people are permitted to bring on holidays? Perhaps ban credit cards above a certain limit?  

9. Long term, the currency would probably recover strength if the government stuck to the EU/IMF plan. But a possible nominally left-wing Sinn Fein government would have an interesting effect on the currency. Ironically, it could lead to Sinn Fein having to do a Trevor Manuel as in Nelson Mandela’s government, or Robert Gates as appointed by President Obama, and appoint a very un-Sinn Fein finance minister so as to not frighten the markets and scuttle the currency. SF in government could begin to resemble SF in government in the North. Or 1960s Fianna Fail.

10. Overall, it would not be the disaster some suggest, at least in the long term, but it would mean some very serious pain in the short and medium term, considerably higher prices and mortgage rates, gains and losses in employment, and an outflow of cash. Along with the additional problems of managing a currency, one would have to question the benefits, but it could be a close run thing. 

 
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President Obama needs to break a promise if he wants to be reelected.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 23, 2011 in US Politics

President Obama is the real deal. That's why he's unpopular.
President Obama is the real deal. That’s why he’s unpopular.

I am proud to say that I was an Obama admirer before it was fashionable. When Hillary had a lock on the Democratic nomination, I still thought Obama was the guy, and here’s why. Because he’s not a socialist or even (by US standards) a liberal. President Obama is a middle of the road can’t we work this out centrist. That’s why I liked him, and that’s what is killing him.

A lot of people are comparing him at the moment to President Carter, another thoughtful centrist faced with massive challenges and a populist disingenuous right wing. When you look at President Carter’s time in office, you realise that the great majority of the decisions he made in office were right, indeed, on energy security, way ahead of their time. President Carter tried to build a coalition of moderate social liberals and moderate balance the books conservatives. He got hammered from both left and right, and President Obama is caught in the same place, struggling to placate his high spending left whilst dealing with the F**K The Poor right. 

The problem for President Carter and President Obama is that the US is not in the humour for the calm measured debate the president promised when he ran in 2008. The country is angry, and looking for a leader to stake out his claim.

It’s time for the President to reach back to his liberal base, and say that yes, cuts are going to be have to be made, but yes, the mega wealthy are going to have to cough up their fair share. The rich don’t always spend extra money they get in tax cuts. The working man always does, because he’s no choice.

Mr. President, it’s time to be the working man candidate.

 
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An Occasional Guide to Irish Life: The beautiful woman who repels men.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 22, 2011 in Not quite serious.

Frosty!

Frosty!

The first time men see her, they stop to look. Superficially, she has it all. She’s pretty, slim, tall, elegant. She dresses well, and she’s accomplished too, a rising star in her profession. She’s never had a problem attracting men.

Until they actually meet her, and her personality kicks in. She is the black hole of charisma, humourless and po-faced to a degree normally unseen outside of a comedy review. She gives thin, slight upturns of her mouth to jokes and witty banter, as if she knows what is expected of her but isn’t sure why, like she’s trying to copy it from memory.

The sad thing is that she is not a bad person. She’s kind, in a cold, practical way, and can be quite selfless, and wonders why men never seem to call her after the third date. It’s not that she’s even bad in bed, it’s that men her age are looking for a companion, whereas with her, it’s like being involved with a sexy Mary Poppins. Intriguing at first, but quite weird when your friends see you.

 
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Why are Irish governments so unwilling to help themselves?

Posted by Jason O on Aug 20, 2011 in Irish Politics

There’s a tiresome pattern to Irish politics. Opposition yah-boos government on everything it does, and protests that “if only they had power”. Opposition wins election. New opposition yah-boos government and protests that “if only it had power”, etc.

What I can never fathom about this carry-on is that modern Irish governments, with the rare exception of Bertie Ahern, are invariably voted out by the punters through a mixture of disappointment and swathe of opposition promises, promises which are never tested because the government keeps all power to itself, and allows the opposition to play the “if only we had power” card. Brian Cowen, through a mixture of ultra conservatism and ineffectualness, let the opposition build up a head of steam and a rake of bright young candidates in local government by giving them a responsibility free run. If Cowen, possibly the worst leader FF has ever had, had instead devolved massive power to the FG/Labour run local authorities he could at least have deprived them of the ability to make consequence free promises.

Compare this with the US, where the Republicans, in control of the House of Representatives, have to actually play a role in the nation’s business.

The next five years are going to be political hell, as the cutbacks and new taxes turn bloody. The next local elections will be, if not a bloodbath, a vicious kicking for the government parties. But why not turn them on their head? If the government were to create elected mayors with tax raising powers, it would not only be doing the country some good, but politically could do itself a favour.

Consider it: Imagine 25-30 full time elected mayors. Most would be from the opposition parties, elected to full five year terms with real power including having to make unpopular tax and spend decisions locally. Most would be the shining stars of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Independents and the United Left, tainted by contact with the reality of power. Now, supposing sitting mayors were barred from contesting Dail elections, in other words, they’d have to resign their seats to contest the general election. Imagine how many of them, looking at another three years as mayor, or the possibility of not winning a Dail seat, would decide to not contest the election.

Overnight FG and Labour take out a whole tranche of strong opposition candidates. And we get a good local government system into the bargain. 

 
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All the national sovereignty you can eat.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 19, 2011 in European Union, Irish Politics

A reader, Davidaod, posted the following comment: “Europe needs to c**t off and give back as much sovereignty to member states as possible.” Aside from the colourful expletive, what I found particularly interesting was his use of the phrase “as possible”.

I write this because I think it underlines an interesting point about the EU and sovereignty, because in the EU, there is no such thing as “as possible”. A member state can have all the national sovereignty it wants. This isn’t the United States. The army (you know, that EU army the No side promised in the Single European Treaty referendum. And the Maastricht referendum. And the Amsterdam referendum. And both Nice votes. And both Lisbon votes. That army!) won’t be sent in. Countries can take as much sovereignty as they want.

The problem is that most people who demand more sovereignty get very vague when you ask them for details. For example, we could tell the EU to get stuffed and default on the banks. That would be, in the current climate, the ultimate act of national sovereignty. Yet it would force us to suddenly slash a huge chunk of public spending out of the economy as we declare ourselves free from the European bailout fund. That would be a major act of national sovereignty, closing schools and hospitals and slashing welfare because we no longer receive EU bailout money. Scrapping the Common Agricultural Policy, and telling the rest of the EU to shove their CAP rules and their CAP money would be an act of national sovereignty. We could kick other countries citizens out of Ireland, which would also be an act of sovereignty, as would welcoming back the hundreds of thousands of Irish kicked out of other countries in retaliation. National sovereignty is the right to control your own destiny, including the right to be poor because it’s all you have. I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised if, as we slashed public services, you’d see many banners at demos saying “At least we can cut our own services! Hurray for national sovereignty!”

It seems to me that there are some in Ireland who believe that national sovereignty means other countries giving us hard cash and opportunities, but pissing off if they expect us to reciprocate. It’s a very teen-going-through-puberty attitude. “Yeah, you cloth me and feed me and house me and take me on holidays and take care of me when I’m sick and put me through college but you won’t buy me an iPad so I hate you!”

National sovereignty is about taking responsibility for everything, good and bad, and in order to do that, membership of the EU, warts and all (and there are plenty of warts) is the best way of doing it.

Copyright © 2014 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.