Posted by Jason O on Oct 31, 2016 in Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
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.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 25, 2016 in Fiction
, Not quite serious.
, US Politics
Repost from 2012: The following post is an idea for a short story I had about Governor Romney and President Obama being locked in a room together. It’s a very long post. You have been warned!
The governor waved once more to the crowd in the Lynn University auditorium, and walked off the stage, Ann’s hand held firmly in his. In the wings, his campaign manager beamed his reaction to the governor’s performance in the final presidential debate with an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
“Governor, that was marvellous!” he said, with a wide grin. The governor raised an eyebrow. It had been the theme inside the campaign, his alleged 1950s style stiffness becoming a source of light ribbing from his campaign team. He actually found it quite funny, especially as his sons were very much the ringleaders.
The debate had been the hardest of the three, with the president holding his own and the governor having to tread very carefully, especially on Iran. His pollsters had been very clear: Defend Israel Yes, lead America into another Republican war, a big fat No. He felt he had kept the balance.
His sons were giving him firm handshakes and slapping his back when he noticed the head of his Secret Service detail speaking to another man he didn’t recognise. The agent walked over.
“Governor, the president has asked that you join him. A traditional matter, I’m told.”
The governor stiffened. It was not commonly known, and he had certainly not known until he had been informed on winning his party’s nomination, that a communications line between the sitting president and his likely opponent was agreed early in the campaign. If the candidate was informed of the phrase “a traditional matter” it meant that there was a national security issue he needed to be briefed on, off the record and not for campaign exploitation. It was a matter of pride to all in the know that the system had never been abused since it was set up by President Ford in the 1970s. Read more…
Posted by Jason O on Oct 22, 2016 in Not quite serious.
, US Politics
From our correspondent in Montreal, Canada.
President Michelle Obama of the United States of America and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada have expressed disappointment at President Ted Cruz of the Constitutional States of America’s decision to quit talks between the CSA and the North American Union. The summit in Montreal had hoped to finally resolve the cross-border trade, taxation and customs disputes following the amicable breakup of the United States in 2026, with the North East, Great Lakes and West Coast states remaining in the USA as the remainder left to form the CSA.
Since the formation of the CSA, two very distinct cultures have developed, with the USA returning to the moderate religious and economic values of the 1950s coupled with social tolerance for religious and lifestyle differences, whilst the CSA has seen the rampant dismantling of former federal laws and agencies in its territories and the effective adoption of Judeo-Christianity as a de facto state religion in a loose confederation of mutually cooperating states with a weak central government.
Under the terms of the Paul Act of 2022, US citizens had been given 36 months to decide which state they wished to become a citizen of, which led to mass migration as minority groups moved to the USA, and social and religious conservatives moved to the CSA.
Although taxes were markedly higher in the USA to fund its universal healthcare programme and infrastructure programme, the CSA found itself in serious fiscal difficulties as CSA senior citizens demanded that social security and medicare entitlements be carried over from the USA, farmers and agribusiness demanded subsidies be continued, and states insisted on funds no longer flowing from Washington for local projects be replaced.
The attempt by President Paul to create the CSA as a tax haven for the world’s rich ran into huge difficulties when the USA and European Union agreed a common tax treaty which taxed profits and earnings shipped out of their joint jurisdiction. That, coupled with his plan to build a vast manned wall between the CSA and the United Mexican States, resulting in a National Security Tax, led to his impeachment.
Paul’s successor, former Texas US Senator Ted Cruz, had hoped to conclude a joint defence pact with the US to allow for savings in defence spending, but President Obama had vetoed the deal “as long as gay and non-Christians cannot serve their country in the CSA defence forces.” The president had been reacting to comments from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff about US soldiers being uncomfortable about serving alongside “segregated” forces.
The Bishop of Houston has announced that he shall be endorsing former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his choice for nominee of the American Party to succeed President Cruz. The endorsement is seen as vital for Palin’s hopes in the primaries.
Governor Palin welcomed the news whilst attending the first school in Texas to implement the “Kidz Rights!” law requiring all children over the age of seven to be armed in case of a terrorist attack on their school.
In the Congress of the CSA, meeting in Tallahassee, a bill requiring non-Judeo-Christians to register with local law enforcement agencies has passed the Senate, and will now go to the House of Representatives. A bill barring non-Judeo-Christians from holding public office passed the Congress and is now before President Cruz. A spokesperson has said that the bill will be given serious consideration. The board of Mercedes Benz has said that if either bill becomes law in the CSA, the company will have to reconsider its investments in Alabama. President Cruz recently vetoed a bill to strip women of the right to vote, the so-called “Clinton-Obama law”, which had passed the CSA Congress. His veto is expected to be challenged.
Other news: the English Prime Minister, Mr Farage, admitted that the his party could not assemble a majority in the House of Commons to agree a common market with the CSA because of the CSA refusal to grant travel visas to English citizens of the Muslim faith. He looked forward, however, to negotiating only a modest fee increase with European Union President Sturgeon for English access to the European Economic Area.
The former presidential candidate Donald J. Trump continues to fight the court order stripping him of US citizenship, and has argued that being forced to live in one of the states that voted for him in 2016 as “cruel and unusual”.
Politicians across North America have been united in wishing former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani well with his condition.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 20, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
On my desk, as I’m writing this column, is a small EU flag on a stand. It’s typical of the overpriced tat on sale on and around the tourist devouring gravitational black hole that is the Grand Place in Brussels. No self-respecting EU official would waste their money on rubbish like this. And yet I spent mine, and it sits on my desk, meaning something to me, a symbol of an almost lifetime of belief in not just European integration but an actual United States of Europe. It’s that belief which is what makes this particular column so hard to write.
Last week there was a debate about the European Commission insisting that the Irish government had no choice as to whether to levy a water charge or not. That it was EU law, that our derogation was over, that was that. Now, as it happens, I believe in water charges. Clean, safe water is a precious commodity that costs money to deliver to our homes, and should be treated as such, and that means putting a value on it. People respect something far more when they have to pay for it.
But a question niggled in the back of my mind. Why is it Brussels’ concern whether we charge for water or not? We signed up for the water framework directive, but the bigger question is why does our system of water supply funding matter to Brussels at all?
Defenders of the directive will say, quite fairly, that if you sign up to something you should carry it out. They also raise the question of why we sign up to some of this stuff in the first place. These decisions are not forced on us by Brussels but by our own national ministers agreeing, and our national parliament not holding them to account before they do so, as say, the Danish parliament does. Indeed, Danish ministers often have to brief their parliament before they go to Brussels, and receive instructions.
It also raises the question, which seems to be regarded as heresy in Brussels, as to whether a member state can change its mind about a directive or regulation and go back to the council and say “you know what, this isn’t working. Let’s get rid of it.”
But the water directive is indicative of something much bigger, and much more troubling. The truth is, we now have a situation where Brussels has direct involvement in the finances of the member states, actually telling us what we can and can’t do with our own money.
Now let me be clear, less some eurosceptic reads this as a Damascene conversion to euroscepticism: I get why we do it. We do it because the euro, our common currency, can only work if its participant nations operate on the basis of sound finances. But that’s the problem: in order for that to happen, we have to go the full federal route, with an economic policy decided in Brussels. The problem is that there is no support for that in Europe, and so we end up, pardon the awful pun, stuck in the middle with EU.
I believe in the euro. I don’t buy the argument that the euro caused our property bubble. The fact that we complain now about the Central Bank restricting lending shows that we had the power to restrict the availability of cheap money during the Tiger years but chose not to use it.
I support a common currency because it makes a political union wealthier. Is there anyone who thinks the US would be the world’s preeminent power if it had 50 competing currencies?
But our problem is that we’re not willing to go the full route, to a central economic policy and a central treasury with Eurobonds. Without it, the euro becomes a convenient demon, for UKIP or AfD in Germany or the Five Star Movement in Italy to easily blame for problems and even failures of national policy. In short, it becomes a weapon to use against the EU itself.
The euro has made countries share power with each other, making German prosperity reliant on Greek finances, but has not given anyone enough power to actually complete the job. If a federal government in Brussels actually collected Greek taxes, and returned a block grant to the Greek government, we’d all probably be better off, including the Greeks. But that’s not on the table, and trying to put it, or something like it, on the table will almost certainly break up the EU.
The euro is becoming a scapegoat for nationalist populists to blame, either directly, as in Italy, or indirectly, as in Ireland with our fiscal treaty obligations to balance our books.
I voted for both the Maastricht criteria and the Fiscal Treaty because I wanted to restrict the ability of Irish politicians to recklessly abuse the national finances. But instead we have created an unforeseen consequence, where rather than forcing national politicians to be honest about tax and spending, we have given them a faceless stooge to blame.
Should we break up the euro? The consequences of such an act, and the devaluation wars it would set off, are horrific to contemplate. So I honestly say I don’t know.
But I’ll tell you one thing: if the belief that it is some unaccountable thing in Brussels which is making you pay for water or queue for hours in A&E is permitted to grow, it will eventually destroy not just the euro but the European Union itself.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 15, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
If one wanted to begin the process of creating an Irish Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, one could start by adjusting a single newspaper headline.
Last week there was much on-air and online preening about how proud we were of the Irish Naval Service. The L.É. James Joyce had just returned from the Mediterranean where it had pulled nearly 2,500 people from the sea, and headlines announced the news with a hint of national self-applause.
But what if the headlines had continued to say something like “and ferried them onto Ireland to be housed.”
Imagine the popular response.
“Now, Joe, I’m not a racialist, but…our own people first, Joe…”
The naval service has a right to feel proud for doing a professional job. But let’s be clear: we as a country then hand the refugees over to the Italians and make it their problem, literally sailing off into the sunset feeling good about ourselves having done what is essentially the easy bit.
The standard alphabet left response is that we should take in every refugee who presents themselves. But even the alphabet left, far more committed to staying on the populist side of every argument than socialist principles of humanitarianism, don’t make a whole lot of noise about it. Some rending of garments, and then it’s back to the more comfortable territory of demanding free stuff paid by people with twirly moustaches and top hats.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, called last week for the creation of an EU city in North Africa to house refugees. Orban has taken, at times, a populist line against refugees, including moving a referendum on the EU’s refugee resettlement policies which he will almost certainly win.
I’m not a fan of Orban, but I’ll tell you two things about him. One, he’s not the most right wing leader in Hungary. That would be the third largest party, Jobbik, an outfit that likes uniformed marches and casually talks about drawing up lists of Jews. Secondly, despite the nasty yahoos to his right, he remains popular in the country, with his Fidesz party regularly polling in the mid-40s. There aren’t many sitting European leaders who can claim that.
That’s not to defend him. But it does raise the awkward fact across Europe that whilst we may want to help the refugees, and we do, large and growing numbers of Europeans don’t want the refugees in Europe, at least not in current numbers. Moreover, in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Hungary populist anti-immigrant parties are winning millions of voters.
Europe’s leaders are caught between a continent and a sea of human misery.
In that context, the Orban suggestion should be looked at. Not a Tony Abbott style offshore prison where people can be dumped and forgotten, but a far more ambitious project.
We should build a little piece of Europe in North Africa. Not a vast camp of tents, but a city where refugees can not only be safe but build a life. It’ll mean building schools and hospitals and roads and marketplaces, and deploying thousands of European soldiers and doctors and engineers and teachers. It won’t be cheap. It’ll probably need a bond for billions raised by the ECB, and be part of the customs union and the eurozone.
But picture the outcome. First, a place actually geared up to shelter the thousands fleeing. Secondly, a clear response from Europe: do not try to enter our continent illegally. You will be brought to the safe zone. You can leave anytime you want. But you can’t go to Europe without our consent.
Let me stress: this won’t end immigration, nor should it. Such a place would allow us to gradually process those who wish to live in Europe, but on our terms. The children there would be educated as European children, working towards becoming European citizens, learning European values, and studying in European universities. The eventual goal would be perhaps a new Beirut as it used to be, a bustling place of business and trade, a gateway between Europe and its neighbours, where businesspeople and students and even tourists legally travel to Europe and live in Europe but feel at ease going back and forth.
And those refugees who don’t want their children sitting with Christian or Muslim boys or girls? Or deny the Holocaust? Or insist on the burka? There’s the gate. Keep walking. You wouldn’t like Europe anyway. Sure it’s full of Jews and gays and strong women.
It’ll need to be run by someone with administrative experience, is pragmatic and middle of the road, a good European, and knows about divided communities. I can think of a chap who drinks in Fagans who might be up to the task. Or that posh English mate he used to knock around with.
A fantasy? Perhaps. But so was Brexit, ending apartheid, the Berlin wall falling, a black president in the White House, Trump. We live in times of breakneck change.
We keep demanding that “the EU” do something about refugees. There is no EU, only EU member states. Individually, EU states can’t solve the problem, and may destroy themselves politically trying, as Angela Merkel has discovered despite her enormous courage.
The Orban proposal is a European response to a European-wide problem. It deserves serious consideration.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Here’s a little mental exercise to while away the coming dark winter nights. Try, if you can, to work out watch percentage of Irish political activity is guff. By guff, of course, I use the scientific measurement of political activity engaged upon to given the impression of activity for its own sake. In other words, a political activity which, if it did not occur at all, would have no discernible effect upon anyone not engaged in the production of guff in the first place.
Now, it’s not unique to Irish politics. Every democratic form of government has its own form of shape throwing. But what is telling about the Irish political system is that our entire political infrastructure, being based upon the British parliamentary model, is almost handcrafted for empty political symbolism. Just consider the fact that this Dail is the most fluid Dail since the great “Put Them Out!” Dail of 1948 where a five party coalition crowbarred DeValera out of office faster than he could you could say “Arriba!” The government has no majority, and is genuinely at the whim of the house. Individual TDs are at their most powerful in a generation. Is the Dail inundated with private members bills being patiently shepherded through the house? Actually, there are quite a few, on everything from the appointment of the Garda Commissioner to creating a new Republic Day bank holiday. But broadly speaking, the Dail isn’t for getting things done. It’s for empathising with voters, or at least looking like you do.
The Dail and Seanad are supposedly the great forum of the nation, where we as a people debate and tease out the great issues. Abortion. Neutrality. Immigration.
Except we don’t, because that’s not how we do things as a country. We don’t have public discourse. Indeed, if anything, we oppose it. Irish politicians still say that the greatest reason to avoid an issue is that it would be “divisive”, as if that’s the worst possible thing one could ever experience.
The problem is that almost anything worth doing is divisive. Storming the GPO was divisive. Rosa Parks refusing to do what the bus driver told her to do was divisive. Refusing to accept the drowning of women as a system of supernatural investigation and legal administration as anything but moronic was divisive.
In 1922 we kept the vast tract of the British legal and parliamentary system because it a) works and b) it’s what we thought what a grown up political system looks like. The problem was that it was designed for the British temperament and British culture, and not the way we actually think as a country.
For a start, we don’t like voicing our real opinions in public. There isn’t an AGM in anything from the GAA to the National Knitting Appreciation Society where actual decisions are made on the floor. It’s all stitched up beforehand, in the case of the knitters, literally. We don’t debate in the forum. We mutter in the pub corner.
From Dail chambers to county councils, the louder the debate, the less likely it’s about something that matters to that body in reality. TDs wax lyrical about potholes in their constituencies, whilst county councillors talk about the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Then there’s the decision making process. Just look at the councils this week, debating setting the Local Property Tax. Marvel as councillors who mere days ago would have broken down in tears at the anguish of spending limitations now fit themselves with beautifully handcrafted brass necks and take to their feet to demand the maximum 15% cut in LPT and the revenue it raises to fund previously mentioned public services.
How do they get away with it? Again, blame the British model, where every individual councillor can blame every other councillor for their decision and thus nobody is responsible. How many people know which parties actually control their county council? The national symbol is the harp. It should actually be a ball of smoke bracketed on each side by a mirror.
The funny thing is that our culture and history provides the solution. Back in the day before Strongbow decided to enter the private military contractor business, we had local chiefs who made the local call, and whom everybody knew made the local call. Indeed, in the Michael Lowrys and the Healy-Raes we still have that cultural hangover, the local big man fixer. What causes such frustration with our political system is that it doesn’t reflect our own political culture.
What would it look like? Directly elected executive office holders, essentially. Local mayors, local ombudsmen, maybe even a directly elected Taoiseach. People who are elected not to lobby or influence or urge, but people who actually have the budget and the power to make decisions.
There’s a whole tranche of Irish politicians who would go cold at the idea, of course. The sort of candidates who see politics essentially as a form of interpretative dance as opposed to actually making finite decisions from a list of infinite choices. Nothing new there.
At its heart, we still have not expelled Dublin Castle from our political culture. We have men (mostly) drawing down ministerial salaries and pension entitlements yet “calling” for things as if someone else is in charge up there in the big castle.
Say one thing for the Big Chief model: he couldn’t say he wasn’t in charge.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 5, 2016 in Irish Politics
, Not quite serious.
Wrote this about 7 years ago, before 2011 election. A bit of fun about Irish politics. Best enjoyed sitting down with cup of tea and chocolate digestive.
The negotiations had taken six months, not including the two months of disbelief from the Irish government side at the initial proposal from the Omni-Ai Corporation of Massachusetts. Ten billion Euro. Not dollars, Euro. Five billion up front, and five billion after two years, on the basis that the Irish state complete its contract.
Initially, the Taoiseach said no. The Attorney General had pointed out the constitutional ramifications, and the fact that a referendum would be required, and he doubted the Irish people could be coaxed into voting yes. Yet five billion in these times of fiscal hardship was a lot of money, and would solve a lot of problems, and stop a lot of people marching on the streets. And when the Taoiseach read the papers supplied by Omni-Ai, it was hard to say that there wouldn’t be a benefit to Ireland, even aside from the cash. There’d be safeguards, of course, and if anything went wrong the country could keep the money, so…
The leaders of the opposition were indignant with outrage, as only Irish opposition leaders can be, but the Taoiseach and his cabinet still saw the benefits, and so the Taoiseach addressed the nation.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 3, 2016 in Irish Politics
Growing up as a enthusiastic member of the Young Progressive Democrats in the early 1990s, one was aware of the hierarchy in the party.
First, there was Dessie, the boss (but not in the CJ way), rockstar, party founder. Then, there was Mary, Michael and Pat, the young (and they were. People forget that.) dynamos, each one a party leader in waiting in their own right.
But in the middle, just under Dessie, was Bobby Molloy. The adult. The grown up. To us, Bobby was Mr Solid. Everywhere else in the country, even in Limerick and the supposedly PD “heartland” of south Dublin delivering PD votes and seats was an often insurmountable challenge. But not in Bobby Molloy country, one of only two constituencies in the country where the PDs never lost their seat.
That wasn’t the party brand. That was Bobby Molloy, and understandable too. Some would say that it was the Fianna Failer in him, indeed that he was an FFer in all but name, but people forget: he didn’t have to defect. He could have kept his mouth shut and stayed in FF and been guaranteed a future, but he didn’t. He took the leap.
It was due to Bobby that the party had a conscience clause, something FF now takes as normal. It was also Bobby who delivered once, to a branch meeting, the best synopsis of what the PD credo was. We were, he said, the party that wants to make the national cake bigger, because that’s the best way of skimming a chunk off to help people at the bottom.
That was the PD credo right there.
Politics aside, he was a gent. He gave me, along with so many Young PDs, a kind word when he didn’t have to. I still remember, in a speech he gave, referencing remarks I’d made in a speech a half hour earlier. It doesn’t sound like much now, but when you’re a nervous teenager starting out it matters. It meant an awful lot to me.
Bobby Molloy left politics and the country in a better state than he found it, and for that, those of us who knew him ever so slightly were all the better for it. God bless.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
In deciding last week to scrap its support for water charges, and possibly unbeknownst even to itself, Fianna Fail took an important philosophical decision. The party decided to press its collective nose against that window Dev had installed to look into the soul of the Irish people, and adopt yet another position on water.
This is Fianna Fail’s fourth position on water charges. In government, the party went from being opposed to them, to agreeing to bring them as part of the Troika deal. It then went to that old reliable default of Irish politics from abortion to neutrality to Seanad reform of being in favour of something in theory but wobbly on actual practice. It now says it believes water should be funded from general taxation, the position it held before the Troika strong-armed the party into actually reading some spreadsheets.
What’s particularly interesting is Fianna Fail’s realisation that the water charge is a fine example of how transparency not only doesn’t work in Ireland, but actually undermines confidence in the political system. The Irish people have always paid for water. Our water system isn’t run by some sort of vocation of volunteer hydrological engineer nuns maintaining the nation’s water supply as a homage to God in his highest. It’s run by people who have to be paid, and that takes taxes.
Water charges attempted to show the public that this stuff costs money, and, through metering, put an actual value on it, showing Sean Citizen how much it really cost.
Sean Citizen didn’t like that, and so Fianna Fail have decided to go back to the old smoke and mirrors approach, pretending that the money we used to spend on water from general taxation was just let sit in a bucket marked water services, and not spent on some other public service.
We all know what happens next. The money will still have to be found, and so will be by stealth. A fiddle of PAYE allowances here, a moving of tax thresholds there. Sean Citizen will still pay, but he’ll be too distracted by Fianna Fail moving their egg cups around the table to hide where they’ve hidden their tax rise pea. He’ll walk away, his wallet lightened by the state, thinking he showed the government a thing or two. As a banner on the water protest last weekend said “Pay water taxes? We will, yeah!” Yeah. You will.
Funnily enough, I don’t blame Fianna Fail for deciding to go this route. It must surely be occurring to them that this whole transparency lark over the last few years, from water charges to public inquiries is in reality making us, as a country, less happy. From the Beef Tribunal forward, through the Golden Circle and the industrial schools and the planning tribunals you would think that by shining the sunlight into dark corners we would at least see a path to being a better country.
But ask Sean Citizen about political or Garda corruption, or waste of public funds, and he’ll tell you it is worse than it’s ever been, and believe it too. Well, it must be, it’s on the news.
That’s the irony: transparency has led to a better country. Children are better protected. Politics is cleaner. The Gardai are more accountable. But the public don’t believe it and yet if you ask them in detail they won’t be able to tell you why.
Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown’s focus group advisor made the point in her excellent book “Talking to a brick wall”, about how by nearly every statistical analysis the NHS under the Blair and Brown governments was better than before, yet the public just would not accept it. Under questioning, members of the public would recount their own favourable experiences with the NHS, and then dismiss it as a fluke.
It’s the same here: if the Gardai suddenly arrested a group of county councillors for corruption, what would be the default public position? “Look, we’re actually cracking down on corruption?” or “See, they’re all at it! I told you!”
It’s not unique to Ireland: there are still people who think Barack Obama either is trying or has succeeded in turning the United States into a Muslim socialist dictatorship. He isn’t and hasn’t, but why let that minor detail get in the way of voting for a world class spoofer next November?
Are Fianna Fail just recognising the reality in our post-factual political environment? Stop being honest with the voters, because they won’t believe you even when you tell them the truth and it makes them unhappy?
Water has to be paid for, and that means you have a choice. You can go the Venezuela route of never wanting to be unpopular and ending up with no toilet paper in the supermarkets. Or you can do Government-On-The-Sly, secretly slipping taxes from people’s pockets when they’re not looking.
To their credit, Fianna Fail realise that the country still needs to be run. The fact that their taxation policy comes from the Victorian street urchin Oliver Twist Book of Revenue Raising may well just be something we have to put up with. The state may indeed have to pick a pocket or two.