Posted by Jason O on Aug 29, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
The first time I ever saw a picture of a burqini, being worn by Nigella Lawson on a beach, my reaction was to wonder why I’d never heard of it before. It’s a fabulous, logical invention, especially if you’re someone like me who follow’s Billy Connolly’s observation that Scottish people in the sun start out first as blue, then white, red, then white again. The sun and I are not friends, and I can see how a person would want something like this. There’s also the fact that there’s nothing particularly Muslim about wanting to preserve one’s modesty on the beach. There’s nothing European about having to show off all the goods either, just that you have the right to if you feel you’ve got goods worth showing. For what it’s worth, a male burqini, if such a thing exists, would transform me from badly shaved bear to strange bearded whale. Either way my modesty would almost certainly be protected by averted eyes and the odd queasy stomach.
The decision by various French mayors to ban the burqini is just plain wrong and to me shockingly un-French. In short, it has been targeted because it is being worn by one particular religious group, not for any practical reason. Wearing a burqini does not affect the enjoyment of the beach by others, nor is it any less hygienic (a particularly dodgy claim) than wearing a wetsuit. This is simple straight bigotry targeted at one religion in the hijacked name of liberalism.
The veil, on the other hand, is different. It goes against a core value of European culture about face to face interaction, and is a direct challenge to that culture. In short, those who wish to wear the burqa in Europe must ask themselves does their desire to wear it trump their desire to be part of European society, because that is the choice. Indeed, perhaps it is time that Europe go even further on the veil. There are, no doubt, women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who do not wish to wear the burqa, and women in Europe who do. Would it not make more sense for both our societies and for those women themselves to live in a society that mirrors their values? I for one would have no problem swapping liberated Saudi women for their European shuffling letterbox peering counterparts.
All this raises a broader question of European values in themselves, and what values must a person subscribe to be part of European society. In Germany, France and Austria it is a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust occurred. In the past, I’ve believed that such an offence is an infringement on the freedom of speech, despite the absolutely loathsome concept of the offence in itself. But today, I’m not so sure. Would it be possible to draft a charter of civic European values that we all aspire towards, and more importantly, being opposed to them becomes a crime in itself and also grounds for denial of refugee status? Now, it’s true that going from west to east Europe gets more conservative, and you won’t get the same rights for gays in Poland that you will in Ireland, but even within that spectrum you have a set of values that are broadly transferable. No EU member state jails gays or mistreats Jews, and those are values that are a beacon of progress in other parts of the world.
But it also raises the question of whether, for example, we really want people coming to live in Europe who support the burqa? Or see Jews as less than equal, or deny the Holocaust, or regard homosexuals or women as inferior? It’s true, there are many native born Europeans who would have problems with some of those values, but so what? This isn’t an anti-Muslim charter but an anti-extremist one. But more importantly, let it be the litmus test for asylum seeking in Europe. These are the values you have to subscribe to, and if you question them, keep walking.
Immigration is a good thing, and I can see both the hijab and the burqini become part of European culture in a way that doesn’t threaten our core freedoms. I would not be surprised to see either feature on the walkways of Paris or Milano in the future, and we have nothing to fear. But the veil is different, and it has no place in a society that regards the genders as equal.
Women who are forced by husbands or families to wear the veil must be helped, and their oppressors (for that is what they are) must be confronted by our laws. Forcing a woman to wear a veil is an act of oppression. As for the women who choose to wear it by their own choice, that is their right, as it is to find a society more in tune with their values, because Europe is not that place.
Posted by Jason O on Aug 23, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on Monday 15th August 2016.
You can’t blame Fianna Fail for their pledge to increase the state pension by a fiver. More than anything else, Fianna Fail exists to win elections, and you go where you think the votes are, and pensioners vote. The question as to whether pensioners actually need another €5 a week is an entirely different issue. Ask Fianna Fail and you’ll get Standard Answer No.1 in the Big Book of Automatic Political Responses: “Haven’t they worked so hard, our old people? Aren’t they entitled to dignity in the winter of their years, etc?” Politically, it’s untouchable. Grade A political gold.
But ask another question: is the €150 million the increase will cost the best use of an extra €150 million we just happen to have down the back of the National Fiscal Sofa? Could it be put to better use on a more socially just cause? Because let’s be honest: there are undoubtedly pensioners struggling to get by. No question. But there are also pensioners who paid off their mortgages years ago, have their medical cards and bus passes and will always thank you for an extra fiver but, (insert incoming political taboo warning here) don’t actually need it. Even if you wanted to just target pensioners who actually are struggling, by giving them a supplement payment, that would be better and simply fairer, targeting finite resources towards those in need.
We’re not dopes. This is simply Fianna Fail bending the knee and paying tribute to the motherlode of dependable actual voters. They’re not the first, and they won’t be the last either.
It also raises the question about how another significant group of voters gets the opposition of the “haven’t they worked so hard?” treatment. Our young people. Young entrants into teaching or nursing got shafted by their own unions in order to protect older, better paid members. Social welfare restrictions were put on young people when wealthy pensioners were getting free medical cards thrown at them. Young people are an easy target because politicians believe that they just don’t vote in reliable enough numbers to matter, or in a significant way that might affect them. Remember the pensioners protesting over the over 70s medical card? They knew what their issue was, and which party’s candidates were to blame. And they voted. The trifecta of political terror. Young people, on the other hand, sure who knows if they even vote, and whether it’s over polar bears or the gays or whatever.
You can’t blame politicians. If young voters don’t take themselves or their own issues seriously, why should politicians? Democracy gives us all a vote, currency that politicians hunger for. But you have to be willing to spend yours wisely to get the best value for it.
Here’s a group of voters that not only has a unifying economic interest, but has the demographic heft, if it chose to use it, to actually get things. Imagine a properly organised Young People’s Party, for the under 30s, which actually dared say “The pensioners have gotten enough. It’s our turn now.”
That’s not to say that all young people think the same politically. Of course they don’t. But this is a section of society that has the most job insecurity, highest unemployment, greatest difficulty affording putting a roof over its head assuming it can even find a roof to pay for. There’s certainly enough there for a platform that a lot of young voters could look at and say “these guys are talking about me”. But where is their political voice? The Alphabet Left parties and Labour have always tried to set themselves up as the natural voices for young people but even they will put pensioners interests first because they too need the votes.
Just ask one of them, live in front of a microphone, will they put the interests of young people ahead of that of pensioners. They’ll give you some guff about intergenerational solidarity and how both should be priorities.
But that always, always results in the pensioners getting to the head of the queue. This isn’t about creating an anti-pensioners party: but it is about pointing out that all the other parties put pensioners first every time and that is not in the interest of the under 30s.
The biggest favour a young people’s party would do for all of us would be to force politicians to admit that politics is about the distribution of finite resources, and that no, everybody can’t be sorted from the same pot. As Brexit showed in the UK, the division between young and old is becoming a potential seismic fault in politics, and you can’t blame young people for wanting to stand up for their interests which are often different from those of their parents. The rising cost to young taxpayers of an aging and longer living population is going to contribute to that division. The truly radical departure of a young people’s party, and its greatest challenge, would be to resist the urge hardwired into every Irish politician to pander for every vote equally.
Of course, this all hinges on young people actually getting organised and doing all those boring things that you need to get candidates on ballot papers and then to win votes and seats. Have young people been pushed economically far enough to be willing to do something about it? That’s the question.
There’s no denying she’s in her fifties. Maybe early, maybe late, but the lines are there. She’s kept her figure, tall and slim and her legs still pass muster below a certain hemline. Even when she was younger, and was very attractive, she still kept her legs in the Hint Of Things To Come category as opposed to wearing a belt as mini-skirt. She wears glasses now, which she prefers to contacts, and keeps her long brown hair in a ponytail. In her stewardess uniform she has an effect on men, and she knows it.
What her body loses with age she recognises she has gained with life experience. The ability to lock eyes with a younger man, perhaps one of her passengers, forcing him to break eye contact and more often than not blush, that always makes her smile.
Since her divorce, her last three lovers have been younger than her. Lovers, not boyfriends, she hasn’t time for that, the only man in her life being her twenty two year old son in college. Nor is she really interested in men her own age, with their jowls, bulging stomachs and insecurities.
There was the very handsome, almost rugged photojournalist in his late thirties who sat opposite her on the flight from Hong Kong. She’d pretend not to see his eyes running over her for most of the flight, but then watched him, never breaking her look. An hour before landing he was stuttering in the galley giving her his mobile number.
Her most recent was her son’s best friend, who called over to borrow something while her son was away travelling in South America. She had consumed a few glasses of wine, and had always had a soft spot for the beautiful young rugby player. She’d known that he’d always fancied her, an ongoing joke amongst her son’s circle of friends which she’d found flattering.
He’d stayed, taken her offer of wine and let her make him some supper. They’d then watched a DVD, and she had undressed him completely and taken him to her bed. They’d been lovers for three months, him calling around or both taking a weekend away. He’d fallen hopelessly in love with her, and had sobbed uncontrollably as she had broken up with him as college returned. He’d even pleaded with her to marry him, which she could have laughed at cruelly but didn’t, cradling his head in her chest and running her fingers through his hair, in that moment more caring mother than sexual partner. It was for the best, she wanted him to go back to college and live the life of a handsome young man.
She would, with her son, attend his wedding six years later, where he would with a simple glance from the wedding table thank her silently. Her eyes were always her best feature, she thought.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 8th August 2016.
It seems that it has become one of the latest causes of the Permanently Indignant Left to call for a referendum on TTIP. TTIP? That’s that trade thing, right? Yes, and that’s your first test. Tell me what TTIP means. I ask, by the way, having guessed myself, gotten it wrong, and having to look it up. TTIP is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the vast trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. Depending on whom you listen to, it’ll either boost trade and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, or it’s a secret plot to hand over vast power to giant corporations who can then go about privatizing everything.
I’ll admit, I knew next to nothing about TTIP, and so went off and found both pro and anti TTIP information, and the more one reads the more you realise how complicated modern international relationships are. Indeed TTIP shows how modern society is a vast collection of moving parts and TTIP and the EU and WTO are an attempt to put some sort of order on them.
Which leads to a bigger question. Are voters actually capable of making a rational decision about these issues?
I’ll be honest: if I were to vote in a referendum on TTIP, I would have to do a few hours study before I knew even vaguely myself whether I thought it’s a good or bad thing. Will other voters do that? Many will, but I suspect most won’t. They’ll be influenced by the opinions of public figures they trust, or, and this is where it gets worrying, by vague nuggets of information they half hear.
What would a TTIP referendum look like, in any EU country? Nearly half the voters would allege its all part of some conspiracy, with everything from the Lizards of Davos to The Rothschilds lobbed in for good measure. Some voters would vote against anything because the government proposed it. In Ireland, some councillor would almost certainly demand local people vote against it unless St. Jude’s gets a new roof for its changing rooms.
I’ve no doubt there are smart people who know TTIP inside out who have serious issues with it. Good. Let them fight it out with other smart people who support it because the rest of us really haven’t a clue.
The truth is that asking the public to vote on TTIP is like asking the public to decide over new techniques in brain surgery. These issues are becoming too technical for the public (myself included) to give anything other than a vague opinion, often based on hearsay information directly contradictory to reality. I’d wager that a large proportion of people who want to stop TTIP can’t tell you what it stands for. If anything, we’ll be voting for who is on what side. So let’s just cut out the middleman and let them decide in parliament.
Is this elitist? Yes. We’re now living in an elitist world. Elite surgeons operate on our loved ones. Elite engineers design and run the nuclear power plants than stop our grannies freezing to death in the winter. Elite chemists design the medicines that cure diseases that killed our ancestors. So why wouldn’t we expect to have elite leaders to run our countries and negotiate our laws and treaties? The alternative is ending up with presidential candidates asking why nuclear weapons can’t be used more often.
But what about us, the voters? Who aren’t experts in nuclear proliferation or labour mobility or life expectancy management? What’s our role? Are we just not intelligent enough to play a role anymore?
Here’s the truth: we don’t need to be experts. But we do need to be able to ask the right questions of experts. We need elite legislatures and voters who know that yes, we do need legislators who know more than we do.
That means we need to take voter education as seriously we require drivers know how to drive.
The programme for government talks of setting up an Electoral Commission to run elections independently. I’d argue that its remit should also include the aggressive year-round education of voters, additionally funded perhaps by a small tax on election posters? Not just on the hows of the political system, but actual facts about our society that voters should know before voting. Is it wrong to educate voters that the government jet and TDs salaries and pensions are a tiny part of the budget? Or that most Irish people get more from the state than they pay in? Or that the rich actually pay the most tax? It’s time for the state to ram political, fiscal and economic reality down the throats of voters, for their own good. Informed voters are as important to a society as qualified surgeons.
We’ve see the alternative in the US, which on the verge of electing a fool as president, on the backs of voters whose ignorance (“Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya!”) is bordering on a belief in a political version of witchcraft.
Democracy isn’t a guarantee of good government, but the last line of defence against tyranny. But in order for it to work, voters have to be able to tell when they’re actually under attack.
Posted by Jason O on Aug 10, 2016 in Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 1st August 2016.
If you were a property developer and you found yourself in prison, in the last ten years or so, you would be forgiven for telling other inmates that you were instead an axe murderer or maybe a drug dealer, as there seems to be less social stigma attached to the latter two occupations. People forget, and I say this declaring myself as someone who was raised and still works in the construction industry, that developers created thousands of well-paid jobs and record numbers of dwellings that actually provided homes for people. Yes, they did this to make a profit, in some cases vast profits. But guess what? That’s their job. But it underlines why the strategy of successive governments to rely on the private sector to meet our national housing needs is essentially flawed.
I bring this up in the context of the ongoing debate as to how we house our people. Let’s be clear: housing, the right to shelter, to a home, is just that, a right. I’m not a great believer in socio-economic rights being enshrined in law as I don’t want unelected judges writing the budget, but housing is different. An orderly society cannot exist without adequate housing for its entire people.
The problem for us is that the private sector and the public need are both focussing on different things. Builders will try to sell houses at the highest price possible, to make a profit, and to berate them for wanting to do that is ridiculous, any more than it is to berate public sector unions for trying to get the highest level of pay for the lowest level of work from their members. Again, that’s their job.
We get angry with the private construction industry for not paying attention to social goals which are not its problem. The CIF didn’t run for election, the government did, and with that we have to recognise that the demand for affordable housing is a different thing from what the private sector is pursuing.
That’s not to say, by the way, that the state can’t sit down with a builder and pay them direct to build publicly owned housing. That’s how we’ve done it in the past. But that’s the state taking direct control of housing policy as opposed to just hoping that what the private sector builds will meet our needs.
There are two residential property seeking groups in the country. The first see housing as a home but also possibly as an investment. It can be a family home but it can also be a holiday home or a flat rented out with an eye to post-retirement income. The issue with that group is that it tends to have relatively easy access to funding and so can outspend the second group in the market, the people who just want a home. Indeed, many in that second group would be happy to rent long-term if they had some sort of continental-style tenancy security.
That second group struggles to access funding and, let’s be honest, shouldn’t really even be in competition with the first group. Instead, we should have a separate housing market for them, shielded from the influx of distorting funds driving up prices. But how?
It’s time for the state to go into the rental business. Isn’t it already, you ask? Yes, it is. For the class with the lowest income, where it provides effective ghettoization and where public housing can be dismissed as being for “those people”. A genuinely ambitious government would go much further.
First, it would set up a national rental company, a semi-state body which will probably become the single largest residential landlord in the country. Such a company could then acquire or build a large volume of decent quality housing, which it could then offer to anyone who wishes it at a fixed percentage of their income.
Initially, the middle class will turn their noses up at this. Even if it buys housing in the proverbial “nice” areas the middle class will still opt out because they don’t know who they’ll be living beside. That’s always being the stigma with social housing. Indeed, many a private tenant in a totally private apartment block will tell you of the shoulder-shrugging response of property management companies to anti-social behaviour from other tenants.
That’s the second part of the deal: each building should have a 24/7 live-in supervisor with the power, through a pre-signed social contract every tenant would sign, to summon a couple of permanently on-call Polish or Lithuanian security consultants to assist in the removal of those anti-social tenants who refuse fair warning. Yes, there’d be war and calls to Joe and talk of constitutional rights and all the rest, but after a few high-profile enforcements and recognition that you can get decent affordable housing and neighbours of all classes and creeds who respect each other, you will catch the eye of the middle class. It’ll be the ALDIisation of public housing.
Then, as with everything in Ireland, once the middle class start demanding it, it’s a whole different ball game.
The private sector can still carry on meeting the housing needs of those who can afford it, but this way we end up with a huge professional landlord setting a continental standard for rental properties for those who just want somewhere to live. That’s not an unreasonable thing to ask for.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Picture the scene: the new National Assembly of Ireland-stroke-Dail Eireann meets for the first time, gathering to be addressed by President Kenny and King Charles III. The new national anthem, Two Peoples, One Country, written by Bono, is sung awkwardly by the assembled group, all reading from hymn sheets. In the Dail chamber, the new flag of the country, a South African style pointing to the future arrow affair made up of green, white, orange, blue and red is put into place alongside the tricolour and (at the insistence of unionists) the UK flag. Both heads of state deliver part of their speeches in English, Irish and Ulster Scots, the three official languages. In the United Nations, a new country name is slotted into place: the Federal Union of Ireland. In Dublin, civil servants correct official documents to reflect the fact that many of the former unionist politicians were bought off with various titles, and we are now a country with Sirs and Lords in official life. To wrap up the day in the traditional manner, the Canadian Ambassador punches someone.
It’s not unreasonable to suspect that there is something in the above paragraph that will get up the nose of either unionists or nationalists. But it also raises the fact that when the issue of a united Ireland is raised publicly, as it was last week by the Taoiseach, its’ proponents have usually given little thought to the actual details.
There’s an almost Trump-like approach to the issue, where questions are met with “It’ll be great!” followed by louder singing of rebel songs. Is there a single leader of nationalist Ireland who would be willing to list out, in detail, the actual things that we as a country would have to concede to unionists in return for their widespread consent?
As it happens, even the idea of seeking widespread consent from unionists is controversial, with too many nationalists believing in the Putin/Erdogan idea that 50.1% of the vote gives you a right to ride absolutely roughshod over the other 49.9%. We know this is a dumb idea because we’ve seen it ourselves in the north of Ireland from 1922 to the Good Friday Agreement, and how it not only doesn’t work but actually makes things worse.
The truth is that even if there is a hair-splitting majority of voters in Northern Ireland in favour of a united Ireland, unionists will still have a blocking veto on what the new Ireland will look like. They’ll have demands, and if we are to convince a million unionists that this is their country too, we’re going to have to concede big.
Just recall the indignation that something as minor (yes, it is) as re-joining the Commonwealth attracts. That’s at the very bottom of concessions. Wait until we need a new national anthem, flag, name, or have to recognise in a new constitution how important the British sovereign is to a section of, yes, our people. Wait until we find the DUP demanding that the Northern Assembly has a veto over the removal of the 8th amendment.
Then there is the honours system. How do we feel about having a Lord as Taoiseach-stroke-Prime Minister of Ireland? What about the compulsory teaching of Irish in the north and Ulster Scots to our children in our schools, a language which, let’s be polite, most of the south doesn’t even accept is a language as much as the soundtrack to an episode of Rab C Nesbitt.
All this before we get into the meat and potatoes of how we fund this. If I have learnt one thing in the last ten years of Irish politics, it’s that the Irish people are plain lying when they say they are willing to pay extra taxes for a noble cause.
An Irish government would be wise to test that support in the one place where the Irish always tell the truth not to pollsters or their politicians but to themselves: their wallets. A government that announced a new unity levy on VAT and PAYE to build up a ring-fenced reserve to pay for a future reconnected Northern Ireland in advance of a referendum on reunification would certainly put every nationalist party in a bind. It’s one thing to belt them out at the top of one’s lungs at closing time, but quite another thing to happily put one’s hand in one’s pocket for the privilege. It’ll be fun watching the anti-tax parties (i.e. all of them) dance a jig around the issue. They can hardly claim double taxation on this one, although I’ve no doubt that some will suggest that the EU, US or even the Brits should and will somehow pay for it all.
Perhaps we It could even put that proposal to the people in a pre-unity referendum, a straight forward “put your money where your mouth is, Irish” to the voters.
Would it pass? Maybe it would. Perhaps I’m just too cynical to see the patriotic passion that a possible united nation once again means to so many. But given they’re not so hot on paying for clean water coming out of their own taps, forgive me if I remain sceptical about voters in the republic taxing themselves extra to guarantee loyalists the NHS.