I had lunch recently with a friend who told me about how strongly his wife felt about abortion, where she was firmly on the pro-choice side of the issue. He then pointed how much she rated a particular local TD.
I furrowed my brow, pointing out that the deputy in question had made some pretty incendiary remarks opposing abortion. I even showed him a link online to an article confirming the deputy’s stance. He was shocked, and suggested that his wife was going to be furious. But it got me thinking: how was it that an intelligent informed woman was not aware that a deputy she considered voting for was diametrically opposed on an issue she rated as very important to her?
One reason was that the Irish media’s coverage of politics tends to be personality rather than values based. Even at election time, media outlets rarely analyse candidates based on specific values or stances on issues, instead listing out party stances based on the technical promises in their manifestos. Which media outlet, for example, maintains a permanent online and verified list of deputies with regard to their stances on abortion or gay marriage, or favouring increased taxes over cuts in spending?
In the US, the NRA not only maintains that list, but advises its members as to which politicians support the NRA agenda. Same with pro-choice, pro-life, election finance reform, and civil liberties issues, all which have organisations willing to inform voters and endorse candidates as to their stance on what issue.
Why haven’t we got that here? One reason would be that Irish politicians are horrified at the idea, and will refuse to cooperate, but so what? Make a call based on their public statements, and offer to correct their position if they request.
Such a site would become quite popular quite quickly, I suspect, from people on either side of an issue.
“EarthOne”, my first published short story, is now available here on Amazon.com as an eBook, and shows once again the dexterity of Amazon.com in permitting the publication of fiction in a format that would just not be economical through traditional publication means. It is, for me, a means of experimenting with fictional ideas that I feel would not justify a novel.
“EarthOne” tells the speculative story of a piece of software designed to run a country, and how society deals with the idea, as leaders and their peoples from a tiny island nation to a failing US city to the People’s Republic of China confront both the challenges and indeed opportunities of the concept, ultimately asking themselves: can we trust this thing we have created?
As ever, I’d really appreciate honest reviews on Amazon.com
Let’s be honest: the British attitude to the European Union is beginning to border on neurotic. Pretty much the entire Conservative Party, most of the print media, and a large section of the populace regard the country’s membership of the EU as being a source of woe. What’s more, the inability of the British to settle this issue is causing them to adopt positions in the EU which causes hassle for the rest of us. This has to stop. At the same time, a successful resolution of the issue has to be calmly negotiated and then clearly endorsed by the British people. So, how to proceed?
The government should negotiate that new relationship with its EU partners, while announcing that there will be a preferendum, where a number of options will be put to the people, including a new renegotiated arrangement, and which will be voted on in order of preference until one option receives over 50% of the vote.
The options should include the status quo, the new renegotiated settlement, and withdrawal from the EU, all put to the people in a preferendum. Everybody from UKIP to pro-Europeans to moderate Eurosceptics will have an option on the ballot, and presumably a second choice.
And in one clear vote, the British people settle the matter for a generation, a decision that both sides of the European divide will have to accept. Giving the rest of us some peace.
On paper, Channel Four’s “reimagining” of Chris Mullin’s “A Very British Coup”, both an excellent novel and TV series, must have seemed like a very good idea. Indeed, when Chris Mullin spoke in Dublin last year he mentioned the remake, suggesting the possible plot of a Tory prime minister under pressure from a devious right-wing conspiracy. The end product, “Secret State”, starring our own Gabriel Byrne as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, is disappointing, flat, and pretty aimless in places.
Why? Well, it isn’t because of a want of trying, with a pretty solid cast including Gina McKee (Our Friends in the North), Charles Dance (pretty much everything), and Rupert Graves (Sherlock’s Lestrade) as an oily Chancellor of the Exchequer. No, “Secret State” fails by wanting to claim the kudos of the 1988 Ray McAnally series (stating in its credits that it was inspired by Mullin’s book) but missing all the factors that made AVBC so watchable in the first place.
AVBC was a very political show. Ray McAnally’s PM Harry Perkins was a hard-left (but very likable) Labour leader implementing a clear hard-left agenda. His opponents, from the CIA to centrists in his own party, clearly opposed those stated policies, and there was debate about them in the series. You knew what both sides wanted.
“Secret State”, in contrast, is almost politics free, clutching to that lazy fiction idea that politics is not about choices but about wanting to do the right thing or not. It starts with a major industrial accident in a US chemical plant in the North of England which kills 19 people and injures 94, and a mysterious plane crash which kills the British PM. It then descends into a story about banks, drone attacks, the possibility of war with Iran, and a very vague conspiracy of powerful business people trying to, well, do something. Byrne’s PM makes a few populist speeches that don’t amount to much, and seems to do almost nothing for most of the series other than brood at his powerlessness. You never even find out which party he is supposed to be leading, and the series seems to be more interested in moody music-cued atmospherics than actually providing an interesting plot, other than “the world is run by bankers, and we’re all screwed.”
It’s just too “these are bankers, so they must be baddies”, and misses the fact that AVBC, although using Perkins as the source of audience sympathy, foisted him with an agenda that many viewers would profoundly have disagreed with.
Byrne’s Tom Dawkins, on the other hand, is on the side of “the people”, whatever that is. I wouldn’t say don’t watch it, because it is nicely put together and is entertaining enough, but it remains that most frustrating of beasts: A political drama without any politics in it.
And Chris Mullin is in it for about 5 seconds. Which was nice.
When I heard it I actually sat up in my seat, and started googling for more information. There, buried in the budget speech, was one of the most radical acts of political reform since the abolition of the dual mandate, and no one seems to have noticed. In short, Michael Noonan announced that county councillors would have the power to adjust the property tax rate up or down by 15%.
So what, says you? Big deal. It actually is, and here’s why: suddenly, the councillor calling to your door looking for a vote in the local elections is actually responsible for money in YOUR pocket. He or she, by offsetting spending in the council, can reduce your tax bill. More importantly, by not offsetting it, by not making cuts, he gives a nice political mallet to some guy running for the council to hit him over the head with, because he can’t do what a TD does and blame the government, because there is no government in the council, only your councillor.
I am so surprised by this that I actually wonder if the government have thought this through. Suddenly, councillors will actually have records to run on, on the one issue Irish voters really care about: money. As well as that, this thing could catch on. Supposing a young councillor were to propose cuts that could cut property tax by more than 15%. What happens then? Someone sues the council for trying to cut taxes too much? There’s a hell of a way of building a political name for an upcoming candidate.
Will the government back down, and give the county manager a veto? Or is the government being really smart, reckoning it is going to lose loads of seats in the 2014 local elections anyway, and so putting the blame for high property taxes into the hands of newly elected FF, SF and ULA councillors in the run up to the 2016 general election?
I deliberately wrote the title of this post provocatively. What do I mean by “ordinary” and “decent”? Well, by ordinary I mean someone who has a 9-5 job that makes the flexibility needed by a candidate very hard to come by. By decent, I mean someone who isn’t going into politics at best for the good salary and perks and at worst to engage in corrupt practices.
But I’m also talking about something bigger: can an ordinary person sustain the disdain bordering on hatred directed at politicians (of all parties) mixed with the irrational and overly emotional expectations of modern voters? Imagine going into a clothes shop with your heart set on a particular jacket, and then discovering that you can’t afford it. You might haggle with the guy in the shop, but at some stage you will accept that your desire (the jacket) and the amount you are willing to pay are not realistically compatible. You won’t feel personally aggrieved by the guy who served you, or declare that he is obviously in the pocket of another customer with the intention of selling the jacket to him for a lower price. You will accept market reality. Yet we don’t accept that in politics. Candidates for office are treated with a rudeness and dismissal of reality that would get you a reputation for unpleasantness if it were applied to any other person.
I’ve mentioned this to people, and they always say the same thing: politicians deserve it. It is certainly true that politicians as a body have managed to create an image for themselves based almost entirely on their unwillingness to actually address glaring public anger about aspects of their professions. Most TDs have no problem with the current system of salaries, pensions and expenses, and I say that because if a majority of them decided to change the system, even the cabinet could not stop them, But they don’t.
Yet a by-product of that tolerance of public anger has been to lower the respect for TDs to a level where most people would, I think, be unwilling to submit themselves to the abuse of election.
How do you change it? I’m becoming more convinced that the normal party conveyor belt for Dail Eireann, party advisor to county councillor to senator to TD, or a variation of it, is becoming an obstacle not just to ordinary voters but even to politically active people who do not wish to become “professional politicians”. It’s an issue which I, as a former candidate now out of politics, have noticed, and tends to be dismissed by professional politicos as people just whinging because they don’t want “to do the work”.
But that is not it either. Indeed, having watched the way our legislature has dealt with the X case or banking regulation or white collar crime or monitoring of public spending for value, they’re not “doing the work” either. It comes down to the fact that many people have an interest in a specific area, and so don’t want to be county councillors. Let people like Labour’s Dermot Lacey, who actually has a passion for local government and what it can do, be county councillors, and let people who want to be legislators, if only for a single term to focus on an issue they want to focus on, be legislators.
How? We should start with term limits, forcing candidates to realise that politics is not for life. If you can’t get what you want you want to do in two five year terms, move on. It’s the single biggest measure to shaking up the cosy political system. And by the way, just watch and see how many opponents of term limits are aspiring pols themselves.
Secondly, and I know this seems loopy, but I’m coming to the conclusion that we should appoint a small number of citizens at random to parliament on fixed one year terms. We already appoint random citizens for murder trials, which are certainly more important than most of the daily crap that legislators do, and such a group would at least ensure that the voice of the non-institutionalised hack gets heard. They would almost certainly be voted down on nearly everything, but it sure would embaress the parties to regularly have to vote down things like cuts to TDs pensions.
It’s a radical suggestion, but one thing is certain: politics and normal everyday existence are getting further and further apart, and that chasm needs to be confronted.
I was going to write a considered blog about Budget 2013, but then I decided “F**K it, why bother?” After all, there are 166 TDs and 60 senators who are paid full-time to worry about this stuff, and they don’t take it seriously, so why should I? They don’t even get to see the single most important piece of legislation of the year until it is finished. Perhaps the Bundestag, a proper parliament, has seen it, but our guys don’t even get annoyed that they don’t have any input. What’s with that anyway? I asked a political hack about it once, and he said that if everybody knew in advance what taxes were coming, they’d change their behaviour and the government would lose out on tax revenue. So, I said, the basic reason for budget secrecy is to allow the government to quickly trick taxpayers out of their money before they can do anything about it? Can I quote you on that? He clammed up pretty quickly.
But even that answer doesn’t make sense anymore, given the amount of budget leaks, which no one ever gets prosecuted for, by the way. No, the truth is that budget secrecy is kept because backbench TDs are wimps.
But that’s not why I’m not going to bother. It’s because our budget debates are not about rational discussions about prioritising one vulnerable group over another less vulnerable group, and divvying up the available cash that way. It’s about emotional hand-wringing and button-pressing, because, as Dave McSavage pointed out, the Irish mind can’t process figures, only stories. So here’s some words you can assemble into your own Budget 2013 blog. Or play Budget Bingo with.
Dignity. Fairness. Vulnerable. Cherish our children equally. Hard-working families. Tax the rich. The bankers. The bond-holders. Fat cats. Golden circle. Public services. Cutbacks. Victimes. Jobs. Abolish. Restore. Wealth tax. Jobs programme. Stolen oil and gas.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before we imported them into Irish politics. “The West Wing” and British politics made sure of that. Today, there are huge swathes of the British Parliamentary Labour Party made up of people who went from college to trades union or NGO to parliamentary assistant to special advisor to safe seat in a former mining district, without ever having to meet a human. It’s not like there aren’t people who work in the NGO sector who don’t believe in stuff, but these guys were just passing through.
In Ireland, he doesn’t even have to do the NGO thing. He can go straight in, and soon you see him sweeping down the corridors of Lenister House or Kildare House, folder under an arm, checking Politics.ie on his (taxpayer funded) smartphone, or plotting his next “We got ‘im!” at leader’s question time, like it all matters to anyone outside of the Leinster HotHouse. Looking into his face, it must be how a wild dog looks into the eyes of a domesticated dog, and sees how he’s turned. He’s one of them now.
The money’s good, especially for his age, and it’s almost like a drug dealer giving the first sample free. By the time he reaches a serious political height, he too believes sincerely that surely no one could work for less than €127k? Sure, how could you get by?
The recent development, and by far the creepiest one, are those who have gone even one step further than their UK counterparts, who actually want to be ministers. The guys who have realised that being a TD is a huge amount of work for little actual power and constant public abuse. A special advisor, on the other hand, gets to whisper in the ministerial ear, actually shape policy, and gets paid just as well, if not better, and doesn’t have to go on The Frontline and listen to the cattle mooing angrily at you. Send on one of those, what are they called again, you know, the little people with the worried look on their faces all the time? Oh yes, backbenchers. That’s the one. Send one of them on. I’m too busy. I have a country to run.
One of the most annoying parts of the abortion debate in Ireland is the constant decrying of “it’s a very divisive issue!” as an excuse for avoiding doing anything. Yet the reality is that it is a very divisive issue with the population divided from no abortion in any case to abortion on demand, and with a parliament struggling to square the circle and not piss off one group or another.
Why not have a preferendum? What’s that? It’s where a referendum has more than just a Yes/No answer. Why not put four or five options on a ballot paper, therefore allowing every voter a chance of voting for what they really want and then transferring to what they will accept, until one option gets 50% support. It’s how we vote in presidential elections, so why not on an issue as contentious as this?
At least the answer will be clear, decisive, and supported by a majority of those who vote, and everybody from SPUC to Ivana Bacik will have an opportunity to get their favoured option proposed directly to the people.