“Whataboutery” is a curious Irish political phenomenon. Its brilliance is its deceptive innocence, a simple query designed not to elicit information but to actually delay something happening without confronting it directly.
Consider, if you will, the recent debate on the introduction of water rates, where a very significant outbreak of Whataboutery was recorded. The minister, John Gormley, announced that each home would have a free quota of water, based on the number of people in the home. “But whatabout if it’s a home with an old woman who has a lot of cats who need to be washed and if she can’t wash her cats she’ll get upset and die? Whatabout if it is a house with teenagers who like to take hour-long showers and if you don’t let them they’ll start using crack cocaine and looking for pedophiles on the internet? Whatabout if it is a scientist who is working on a new form of nuclear power in his backshed and needs loads of water to keep the fuel rods cool and he can’t afford the water and so his reactor goes critical? Doesn’t that mean that water rates will lead to the nuclear annihilation of Dublin? Well, I’m against that, and if the minister isn’t he doesn’t care about ordinary people!”
There’s also an Ulster derivative of Whataboutery, highlighted by the late David Irvine, with a unique Northern twist. Ulster Whataboutery takes the form of a twisted game of outrage Snap! where the players harangue each other with a list of outrages and slights against their own particular community, going back through history until reaching the first incident of a neanderthal marching provocatively past another neanderthal’s hole in the ground and denying him parity of esteem, or unless a player collapses from soda bread and deep-fried Mars Bar deprivation. The winner gets a one year internship in the University of Massachusetts John Hume School for Peace and Sleep Inducement Studies.
Pat Leahy, in his excellent speech to the Kenmare economics conference here, makes a telling point about how Irish politicians are incredibly short term focused in their decision making. I bring up the point because, in light of the defeat of the government over the 30th amendment, we’re now looking again at the upcoming constitutional convention. Having watched Fine Gael in government for the last eight months now, their transformation into a “we’re in power now, so change as little as possible” Fianna Fail style government took less time than even I imagined, and I have no doubt that they are trying to dream up gimmicks for the convention to avoid changing anything major. That’s the thing: After the convention, constitutional reform will be off the table for a generation, and yet these guys, in their own party political interest, will try and stymie the process. Think I’m being too harsh? Ok, here’s what I think will happen:
1. The convention will be dominated by government TDs and government appointed NGOs who will be able to outvote the citizen members.
2. Many of the NGOs will side with the government to oppose radical political reform such as an elected Taoiseach, citizen initiated referenda, and term limits, and will get, in return, the insertion into the constitution of their pet political declarations.
3. Political reform will be limited to tinkering with the Seanad (possibly implementing elements of the 2004 “minimum change” report) and, bizarrely, changing the length of the presidential term. Electoral reform will be passed over, with the convention, after claiming that the only alternatives are party lists and first past the post, plumping to remain with STV exactly as it is.
Of course, perhaps I’m wrong. If Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the United Left demand that the convention be permitted to submit minority proposals to the voters, as the price for those parties participation in the convention, then maybe there is hope. It would be very hard for the government to continue with the convention without all party support, and this will be our last serious attempt at political reform for a generation.
It’s reasonable to say that Fianna Fail has had a good election. First, by not contesting, they have saved themselves a fortune in an election that will be pretty much forgotten as soon as President-elect Higgins is sworn in. In contrast, Fine Gael must be feeling humiliated and empty pocketed after the whole chastening experience. For them, it has certainly taken the shine off their general election win, and shown that hubris can be a terrible thing in Irish politics.
But there are lessons for Fianna Fail. Firstly, the party’s very satisfactory performance in the Dublin West by-election has shown that candidate selection still trumps party label in most Irish elections. Cllr. McGuinness’s message about not electing another government TD didn’t quite work, but was effective enough all the same for a party that had been comprehensively rejected a mere eight months ago. It shows that some wayward Fianna Fail voters are willing to return to the fold.
Having said that, they’d want to watch the “We’re back!” chanting at the count, which brings me to my second point. The reason that Sean Gallagher, the de facto FF candidate, lost, in my opinion, was because he started giving the classic Fianna Fail defence, ducking and diving and giving more and more convoluted answers. Fianna Failers don’t seem to know this, perhaps because they are so used to it, but trying to give clever “technically correct” answers to questions isn’t clever. It’s shifty, and it’s a trait FF needs rid itself of. For an example of someone trying to give technically correct clever answers to a question, and making himself look like a tool, watch this. FF would do themselves no harm watching, because it isn’t the scandal that gets you, it’s the cover up.
Fianna Fail candidate Lord Voldemort has welcomed the result in the Dublin West byelection, taking plaudits from Fianna Fail supporters who chanted “We’re back! We’re back!” at the election count yesterday. “This is a great day for our movement, whom so many had thought destroyed after the titanic struggle earlier this year which wrenched us from power and destroyed our regime. Yes, we have learned today that deep in the shadows our forces continue to gather, and plot our return to our rightful place ruling over this land and grinding our opponents under our heel. Onward, soldiers, to our destiny!” Voldemort also pledged to defeat the newly-elected President Dobby the Elf.
Fine Gael have responded to their poor performance in both the presidential and byelections by pointing out that the party has stuck firmly to its principles. “We are a party of traditions, and we have stood firmly by that principle. Admittedly, the tradition is one of losing elections, but it’s a tradition all the same.”
I was listening to a pundit yesterday rail against the EU for not being enthused about letting Ireland default on her debts, a la Greece. What was interesting was that the pundit did not see a distinction between Greece and Ireland, and seemed to be convinced that things in Ireland were just as bad as in Greece. Not only is that just not economically true, because, to give one example, the Irish people do actually pay taxes, and Ireland does actually manufacture products for export, but I found the “Bird O’Donnell” from “The Field” approach to the issue to be pretty odious.
There are good reasons for any country wanting to reduce its debt, but to actually demean ourselves in front of the rest of the world, trying to convince them that we are as s**t a country as one that lied to the rest of Europe and demands a parasite’s free passage, that’s pretty low. I’m paying more taxes like everyone else. My pay has been cut like (nearly) everyone else. I have less public services like everyone else. But I don’t want to have my government debase our national honour. Not only is it damaging to our ability to restore national sovereignty by returning to the bond markets, it’s just plain sleazy. Surely we are actually a better country than Greece? Surely our word means something?
Funnily enough, when I was thinking about this post, I mentioned it to a few (non-political) people, and I deliberately pushed the “honour” line, because I was curious as to how that argument played. Not surprisingly, it was met, for the most part, with a mixture of puzzlement and sneering. I was left with the impression that “honour” is only of use to us if we can use it to trick another nationality into thinking we are morally better than we are, in another to help us steal something from them. I’m often surprised at the amount of people who boast about things they stole, or debts they left unpaid, when they lived in Australia or the US. They’re not bad people, yet it is interesting that if you stole similar amounts of money from their bank accounts, they’d be outraged. That’s the thing about honour: it’s for other people.
As my Irish readers and I go to the polls today to elect a new president, amend our constitution and in one constituency elect a new member of parliament, a thought about the voting system we will use, the Single Transferable Vote. STV allows voters to rank candidates in preference, and, in these elections, for candidates with low vote tallies to be eliminated, and their preferences distributed, until a winner gets over 50% of the remaining votes. I was reminded recently of a visit to Ireland some years ago by some British MPs to study the system, where they visited polling stations and the count during the general election, and a comment they all made in different ways stayed with me. They were really surprised at the amount of time people took in the polling station to decide on their preferences.
That’s the thing about STV. Not only does it allow you to make a symbolic vote for a candidate you know won’t win, but also for your vote to still remain in play with your preferences. Not for the Irish the bizarre British system of voting for one guy and accidentally getting someone else elected. STV lets you vote the way you want, and by giving your last preference to the candidate you really hate, you vote can help block him or her. It’s a very expressive system, and allows Irish votes to subtly express what they mean: “I really like her, I’ll settle for him, but no way do I want THAT guy to win!”
Even people like me, who want to change the voting system, want to add something onto STV, not abolish it, because as a voter’s tool, it works, and it works well.
On Thursday, aside from the relatively unimportant freakshow that has been the presidential election, we have two important votes on amending the constitution.
On the proposal to allow the government to reduce the pay of judges, I’m voting yes. The arguments against, that it will reduce judicial independence, have an air of “Never mind if it will work in practice, will it work in theory?” about them. I have yet to meet a single legal minded person who can give me a concrete example of how the proposal would make judges more open to tampering than they are now. After all, the government controls the appointment and promotion of judges. In particular, the desire of judges to make it to the supreme court must be a far more appetizing ground for government pressure than their pay. Or are our judges only honest because there is a threshold, money wise, where they suddenly come up for trade? I actually have more faith in our judges, and that’s why I’m voting yes.
As for the second vote, I can understand the need to deal with Abbeylara. However, my problems are this: 1) I have no faith in the Oireachtas setting out “fair procedure”. What elected member of the house will stand up for a banker or property developer to get a fair hearing? Don’t forget, they may come for the bankers now, but who is to say Taoiseach Varadkar won’t come for the trades union leaders in the future? Secondly, I don’t like the fact that a majority of the house is needed to set up the investigation, because that means that the government, who controls the majority, will never set up an investigation to investigate anything it has done, or is doing.
Finally, ask yourself: Would you be happy giving Charlie Haughey this power? If CJH had this power, he would have had Des O’Malley and Garret Fitzgerald up in front of a kangaroo court for “conduct unbecoming an Irish citizen”. Enda and Eamonn are decent guys. But there’s no guarantee that Taoiseach Adams will be. Vote No, let them fix it, and we’ll vote again next year with the Children’s Rights referendum. Everybody wins.
Fianna Fail: Will think about it, but only if it can see other people too.
The people of Ireland, voting in the Irish presidential election, have asked the former governing Fianna Fail party to forgive them for ousting the party from power in the general election held earlier in the year. Voters gave a clear plurality of votes to unofficial Fianna Fail candidate Sean Gallagher, a former senior officer and fundraiser in the party and defender of the former government’s values, and they’re now standing outside Fianna Fail’s house crying and asking to be taken back.
Fianna Fail has responded by saying that the Irish people will need to work harder than that to be forgiven, but will think about it, provided the Irish people are cool about Fianna Fail seeing other property developers and bankers, and is willing to put out its national sovereignty for Fianna Fail when it has a few drinks. It also wants the Irish people to promise that it won’t ask questions about Fianna Fail’s horse gambling “issues”, or its “special” friends.
London Mayor and former Tory MP Boris Johnson is a man with a passion for the classics, and in “The Dream of Rome” it shows. A moderate eurosceptic himself (Because, as he points out, he actually worked in Brussels as a journalist.) he uses his love of the Roman world to compare and contrast with the hopes and failings of the European Union.
The book is written in a very light-of-touch style, which makes it enjoyable and in parts quite funny, but attempts by eurosceptics to use it as an “I told you so!” will fail, primarily because it highlights the EU’s respect, unlike the Romans, for diversity. He rightly points out that the Romans managed to convert English warlords, German chiefs and Spanish fishermen all into Roman citizens holding similar values (And culinary tastes such as the disgusting fish-sauce Garum, which was to the Roman table what ketchup is to the American.) in a way that the EU has failed to do. But then the EU never put the sword to the throat of its citizens either. And whereas the Emperor Augustus created in himself a uniting image, right down to putting his head on the coinage, for the whole empire, it is doubtful Jose Manuel Barrosso would be willing, or appreciated for, doing the same.
Of course, could you say the same for President Blair? Augustus pretty much declared himself a god. Tony wouldn’t do that, would he?
A very entertaining holiday read, and doesn’t require too much pre-read knowledge of the Roman Empire. Which is nice.