In the United States cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Northern France, the bodies of over 9000 US servicemen rest. Over 9000 Americans who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy and elsewhere to free Europe from the shackles of Nazism. It is not an exaggeration to say that without their sacrifice, Western Europe would not know the 71 years of freedom it has enjoyed since the war.
The United States is not our enemy, nor should it ever be. The common values and the common history of the Atlantic, of Europe and America, mean too much.
But the election of the current President of the United States puts unique challenges in the path of Europe. From the defence of our Eastern most nations, to the securing of our southern borders, to our relations with Islam, to the defence of free trade and the prosperity it generates, these challenges throw a gauntlet down before this generation of Europeans and our leaders.
We are not some feeble minor nation. We are 450 million of the richest people on Earth, with some of the most powerful industries on the planet. We own one of the greatest common markets in human history. We build ships and cars and planes and aircraft carriers and yes, even nuclear weapons. We grow the finest foods on the planet, in vast quantities. We have the most beautiful cities in the world.
We are, in terms of spending, the second great military power on the planet if but we choose to recognize it.
And we are the greatest home on the planet to freedom, to tolerance, to diversity. We do not recognize torture. We do not execute our people. We do not boast of how many of our people we jail. We believe healthcare is a human right, not a privilege.
We are not perfect. Among us are extremists, both religious and political, including those who seek to deny the hateful crimes of the past against the Jewish people and others. But there is a majority across our continent which stands fast against those demons of both our past and our present, ready to fight, at the polling booth, on the streets.
Those demons, they shall not pass.
There are those who say there is no such thing as a European demos. That you can not build a united Europe because Europeans do not share a common history or common values.
The current incumbents of the Kremlin and the White House have disproved that. Europeans of the right and left have looked on in recent times and agreed that there is an alternative to a nationalism built on suspicion and fear. That love of one’s homeland does not automatically indicate fear of another.
Look at the response of Europeans to the attacks in Paris and Brussels and Madrid and Berlin. We did not treat those attacks as outrages in strange distant lands. They were attacks on us all, on our ways.
That is what unites Europeans. That I can walk the beautiful streets of Barcelona or Paris or Milano and know that an attack on them is an attack on my values too.
This is not a call for an identikit single nation called Europe. We are sovereign proud nations, proud of our flags and our history.
History has thought us that the defence of that sovereignty will come from the sharing of tasks and resources to magnify the power of all.
It’s time for us to recognize that the great nation to our east only respects strength, and that the great nation to our west is in a time of great insular strain. Given those realities, Europe must act decisively to secure its own interest and speak with strength in defence of our values.
We must build a European Defence Force, made up of volunteers, with the clear objective of pooling enough existing resources to get the increased capability we need to secure our borders east and south.
We must establish, in Northern Africa or elsewhere, an EU run refugee safezone to provide shelter for anyone fleeing oppression, and allowing us to restore full control of our continental borders. No more can we let our despotic neighbours use refugees as a boot with which to press on our throat.
We, as one of the three great economic powers, should enter immediate negotiations to create an Atlantic free trade area. Unlike others, we can negotiate with the United States as an economic equal, because we are. We should do so, but only as an equal.
These great projects are as much an act of self interest of the nations of free Europe as a pursuit of noble ideals. But both roads lead to the same destination. A strong Europe as the tool of its sovereign nations, putting our values at the table of nations.
In the words of that great European, Winston Churchill: Let Europe arise.
Posted by Jason O on Jan 28, 2017 in Irish Politics
Previously published in the The Times Ireland Edition.
There must be, in the Department of Health, a particular well-thumbed file. Let’s call it The Groundhog Day File, given that it must be reached for, with a heavy sigh, by some senior health official every time a new health minister approaches his or her first winter.
“We must do something!” the panicking politician will cry.
“Well, we could increase the number of beds, hire and train three extra nurses for each bed to provide 24 hour coverage, hire extra support staff, hire extra doctors and build new buildings to store them all in,” the official will say, reading off the first page of the file as if they have to.
“How long will that take?”
“Oh, between five and twelve years?”
“What? Joe Duffy will string me up. I need an answer now!”
“We could probably scrape about 60 beds together? With some overtime, rejig rosters, blutack…”
The minister then slumps in his seat.
“How are we not prepared for this? This happens every bloody year! Why weren’t these plans put in place five to twelve years ago?” he asks.
The official will smile a smile that simply says “Ah, bless.”
“Because, minister, five to twelve years ago when we said this to the minister, he said he needed an answer right then. But if you were to start spending today’s money on future planning, you could avoid a minister twelve years from now having this problem.”
The minister explodes.
“What? Make decisions now so that that some fella twelve years from now gets all the credit? Screw him! Where’s that blutack?”
And that’s pretty much been the situation for as long as Simon Harris, minister for health has been actually alive. We’ve had Michael Martin, Michael Noonan, Mary Harney, Brendan Howlin, James Reilly and Leo Varadkar as minister, and the one thing that has united all has been the issue of A&E and beds, during good times and bad.
Every year we have the same story, the same individual stories of pensioners on trollies for x hours. The great Gordian Knot of Irish healthcare. The same questions by the public: why is it still a problem? And the same solution proposed by whichever party is in opposition: more resources.
Here’s the reality. Repeat it after me: There are no votes in fixing waiting lists. There are votes to be lost by fixing them.
Yes, I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the Irish people would shower with votes the minister who finally fixed a problem that had seized the popular imagination. That was debated and discussed and cursed in pubs up and down the country? That touched pretty much every family?
Nope. For some reason, modern Irish voters do not reward their politicians for solving national problems. Remember when driving tests were a saga? When you went months and months before you could get a driving test? Older readers will remember that. Then the late Seamus Brennan fixed it, and bugger all good it did for him. Mary Harney pretty much singlehandedly wiped out Dublin’s smog problem. Dublin had a smog problem? There you go. The late Jim Mitchell saved the taxpayer millions through the DIRT inquiry. Lost his seat in the following election.
The Irish electorate don’t do gratitude. So there are no votes in fixing the big problems. But there are votes to be lost. Investing now to ensure that a decade from now we have more bed capacity will cost money now, with little benefit today. But it will also mean taking money away from other spending commitments, and that becomes the story.
“More cuts from minister”. Not “Minister redirects limited resources for better long-term gain”.
There are no votes in long-term policies. That’s not unique to Ireland, it’s actually a cancer at the heart of modern western democracy, that voters want everything now. Almost every major social problem requires planning and spending of today’s taxes to avoid problems in the future. But you cannot get votes on that platform.
I’ve mentioned in this column before that my background is in the construction industry. As a result, I’ve had an opportunity to visit sawmills and forests in Sweden. What’s interesting is that many of the forests are relatively close to the sawmills because as the original forests were cut down, the sawmills replanted them knowing that they personally may never see the benefit. In fairness, Coillte does the same here. But as a general concept in Ireland, it’s a rare beast.
There’s some part of the Irish psyche that can’t comprehend long-term, and it is hurting us. As to the solution, consider this: maybe it is time to take things like housing and healthcare out of politics altogether. Supposing if the Dail decided to appoint a non-political health minister for a fixed ten year term, to implement an agreed long-term plan and budget. The problem with that is that it would strip the opposition of the issue and all the heat and emotion that goes with it. A minister who actually took on those whose salaries and pensions were paid from the heath budget, or “vested interests”, to give them their popular title, would become very unpopular very quickly too.
Politicians wouldn’t like it because their employers, the voters, wouldn’t like it. Nobody likes going to the dentist even though we know we have to.
That’s the thing about democracy: tomorrow is nearly always someone else’s problem.
Posted by Jason O on Jan 23, 2017 in Cult TV
With the recent finale of the fourth season of “Sherlock” looking very much like a series end, the question of the future of the show must surely be up for debate. The reality is a bizarre one. The idea that two relatively modestly known actors (Freeman being the more famous, if anything) would become globally recognized film stars is a pretty far-fetched one, and yet that was what the show did for the two of them. Both went from earning a living as working actors and being That Guy From That Thing to, well, them.
The rest is history: “Sherlock”, although a globally successful TV show, is still run on a relatively modest budget and you can’t expect two guys to turn down the opportunities now open to them in Hollywood.
That’s not to say they haven’t shown loyalty to the BBC, because they have. But the reality is that the show deserves to survive even if, for whatever reason, its two stars can’t commit to anything more than the odd TV movie.
Plenty of fans would like to see more of “Sherlock”, and that leads to the awkward question. To recast?
There are those who say that it’s impossible, but I can tell you, as someone who thinks of Jeremy Brett and David Burke or Edward Hardwicke when I hear the names Holmes & Watson, it’s not. I love “Sherlock”. I got goosebumps when I saw the first episode. But I’m not a wacko purist who thinks that somehow the thing I loved can be damaged or changed by something that comes after it. Even George Lucas didn’t managed to destroy the good “Star Wars” movies.
“Sherlock” can continue, and if you don’t like it without Cumberbatch and Freeman, then don’t watch it. But what about Julian Rhind-Tutt or David Tennant as Holmes, and Stephen Mangan as Watson? Or, and here’s one out of left field…what about Lars Mikkelsen and Toby Jones as an older pair?
Or failing that, if a recasting is too radical, what about The Adventures of Mycroft & Irene, with cameos from our favourite inspector, landlady and pathologist?
Of course, the one thing I would ask is that they solve a few sodding mysteries this time…
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
As a columnist, giving out yards about the state of the country is pretty much bread and butter. But I’ve always tried, if not succeeded, to convey that my frustration with this country is not from anger with it, but the fact that it is so tantalisingly close to moving from being a great country to a world leader.
It’s from that perspective that I get irritated when I see, and it’s pretty common in Ireland, someone launch a tirade about what an awful place this country is. You’ve heard it yourself. They’ll start with homelessness, or health waiting lists, or mental health services, or any number of legitimate areas of dissatisfaction. But that will be a launch pad into how we have no health service, no welfare system, no housing, how the country is run by the banks and how austerity has left us in a third world country. How we have no democratic choices and how the Gardai are fascist boot-boys and how the media is run by Ireland’s version of C. Montgomery Burns.
Except they get to say all this freely. And secret police don’t kick in their doors, or shut down the Socialist Worker. And they do win seats in the national parliament and draw very nice salaries.
See, that’s the frustrating bit. This country has its flaws in its public services yet our health service provides cheap and efficient care for millions. The great majority of our people are housed pretty well. Hunger is less of a problem than obesity. Our old people get good pensions.
Say what you will about Enda and Micheal and the rest, because you can. Unlike in Turkey or Russia. In Russia journalists investigating crime and corruption get murdered. Know what happens when a crime journalist gets murdered here? As it happens, we do know. The state, our state, mobilised to defend freedom of speech and brought its boot down not on the free press but those who threatened violence against it. Give abuse to our politicians and they might abuse you back, but they won’t send thugs around, even the ones who used to justify murdering political opponents.
But if you really want to know what a great country this is, ask someone who lives and works here but isn’t an EU citizen. Ask them would they like an Irish passport, and they’ll tell you it is a treasured document.
This isn’t all an accident. We’ve made mistakes, and lacked ambition for ourselves, especially with our natural resources, but this has been, since the end of the civil war, one of the most free nations on Earth. As the Trumps and Wilders and Le Pens and Erdogans and Putins become the norm, our little island may well be one of the few tiny specks of light in the coming darkness.
There’s a potential for us, to be Singapore on the Atlantic, but with, you know, a proper democracy. A small well-run place where crazy people are kept away from power. Where Enda and the rest, for all they do that gets up our nose, aren’t Trumpolini. Ourselves, Canada and New Zealand have the chance to be a haven for Americans and others. For a fee, of course. We can’t let everybody in.
But we have a clean, stable, English speaking country with socialised medicine, strict gun control, no death penalty, same-sex marriage, public broadcasting standards, a restriction on paid political advertising on TV and fair elections. We’ve even got an American in the cabinet, and they’ll just love Michael D with the poetry and the Castro. Yeah, the abortion thing might annoy them but given what the Republicans are planning to do with abortion it’s not impossible we end up becoming a pro-choice country just as the US buys a second-hand 8th amendment.
As President Trump starts pulling back on foreign direct investment by US companies, we might find ourselves scrambling for some other strategy.
I think I might have it. You know that ad the National Lottery are currently running about the guy who wins the lottery and buys an island which he gives to Ireland? The first time I saw it, I thought it was just silly and not a little bit colonialist. But then it struck me. If Ireland remains one of the few countries in the world not run by a variation of either Nazis or good old fashioned eejits (I’m looking at you, Venezuela), we could be a refuge for moderate rich liberals who want either to ride out the storm o’crazy or even retire. But the weather isn’t great here, and it’s a serious problem for all those Californian liberals.
But what if the state did buy an island somewhere nice? Owned by the state, operated by the state, and served by Aer Lingus. We could extend our non-crazy jurisdiction to the island, and still tax those liberal refugees. We could stick a few guards and soldiers on it, use rotation to the island for six months as a sweetener in the public sector talks, and here’s the best bit.
It would become a holiday destination for the Irish. Good weather but also somewhere you could still see “Fair City”, get proper chips and Brennans sliced pan. We’d keep the holiday spending in the extended country’s economy.
Of course, we’d have to do something about the duty free and the price of a pint. As for who we’d appoint governor…
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition:
Every once in a while a myth emerges that Ireland could be the Saudi Arabia of either natural gas or fish if it hadn’t been for the dastardly EU or multinationals robbing our natural resources. It’s a very comfortable myth that fits meets with all the criteria of a good Irish tale of suffering and woe.
Firstly, it’s about the simple decent Irish being tricked out of something by more clever foreigners, once again left standing on the side of the market road with a bag of beans as some rapscallion legs it with our prize heifer. Secondly, the prize is always something magical that could have solved all our problems if only we had a chance to benefit from it. Thirdly, it fits in with our bizarre national pride in being the fabled Most Oppressed People Ever, a country with an almost masochistic pleasure in being done in once again. As if our national symbol shouldn’t be a harp but a “Pulp Fiction” style leather gimp mask.
It’s a load of nonsense. It’s true, we do let other countries take out vast amount of fish from our waters. But the question I always ask is what were we doing with those fish before we joined the EEC in 1973? Bear in mind the Norwegian people turned down EEC membership in the same year because they had exploited their resources and felt they didn’t need to join. Were we a fishing superpower, exploiting our natural resources before the evil continentals came and stole our golden goose?
No, we weren’t. In our 50 years of independence from 1922 until we joined the EEC in 1973 we did feck all with our much ballyhooed natural resources. We had no Brits to bully us, no European Commission to set down fishing quotas. We had just us and near total national sovereignty. We were masters of our own domain.
Did we build our own super trawlers and factory ships and conquer foreign markets with good Irish fish? Did we create hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs as a result, stemming the flow of emigration that blighted our land for a century and more?
No. We did little, but started complaining once someone else did something with them, even though we benefitted both directly and indirectly, as did they.
And, by the way: you know all that complaining we do about Spanish trawlers? We were in the EEC before Spain was. We were on the team negotiating with Spain on them joining, so we can hardly complain that Spain got too good a deal.
With Spain in 1985, as with us joining in 1972, we did a cost benefit analysis. What was in our overall interest? Would we lose fish to others? Yes. Would we gain in other areas by joining the EEC and not blocking Spain, as we could have? Yes. We took a conscious decision that hurting our fishermen, and we did hurt them, was in the long run of benefit to the common good for the majority, and we were right. This country, and the people in it, are far richer than in was in 1972 when we had complete control over our fisheries. We had far more farmers than fishermen and they benefitted from access to European markets, standards and the Common Agricultural Policy.
The fact that we chose not to share more of that new wealth with those fishing communities was not a decision made in Brussels, but in the Dail. National sovereignty in action.
In recent years, it’s becoming fashionable to talk once again about national sovereignty as if it is some newly discovered concept. As if suddenly just ignoring the EU or globalisation is some sort of Make Ireland Great Again switch that we could just press if the people we keep electing in free elections weren’t all traitors and sell-outs.
Yet national sovereignty itself is a compromise between symbolism and the power to shape a nation’s destiny. North Korea has much more national sovereignty than South Korea, for example. The south is tied into defence and trade alliances with the US and Japan, whereas North Korea barely listens to China, if anyone. Yet in the south they ponder buying the new Samsung or an iPhone, whereas in the north the big debate for many is whether there’s enough tree bark to go around for supper. Which people have more real sovereignty, that is, control over their actual lives?
The debate to be had isn’t about national sovereignty, but a dangerous growing tendency in electorates across the west to not liking choices. It’s hardly suprising: the post-1945 welfare state was fuelled by levels of growth and borrowing that made choices easy. But there are no easy choices left.
Look at the hand-wringing on-line over the horrific scenes coming out of Aleppo, and Europeans demanding their governments do something. In the same breath, many of the same people oppose Europe acquiring a serious military capability, or the consequences of taking in refugees, or creating some vast EU funded safe-zone somewhere.
But this is the challenge for the new generation of those seeking office. To confront the people who elected them and tell them that phrases like national sovereignty are meaningless. That modern life is about choices, often choosing the least worst of them.
The politician who figures out how to communicate that and still get elected will rule the world.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Last week I was discussing online Sinn Fein’s proposed constitutional amendment on neutrality. As it happens, as someone who is unashamedly pro-NATO, I actually have little problem with Sinn Fein’s desire to put a constitutional ban on us joining military alliance.
For one, it means that Sinn Fein accepts, despite protests to the contrary for years, that the EU is not a military alliance, and that therefore military cooperation within the EU would be compliant with the Irish constitution. Glad to hear it. I’m not sure that is Sinn Fein’s actual aim, but as the 8th amendment has proven, sticking this stuff in Bunreacht na hEireann can actually have the opposite effect to what was intended.
It would also mean we’d have to have a referendum to join NATO. Again, shock horror! Is there anyone who thought that we wouldn’t? Really? I can live quite comfortably with the idea of Ireland not being in NATO for the simple reason that NATO is very important to the defence of this continent, and I don’t really want some sub-par Irish minister interfering with its work. Better we remain outside and just adopt NATO standards after they have been agreed by serious people, as we do now.
But back to my online discussion. A person very sincere in their beliefs about Irish neutrality informed me that they were completely against Irish troops ever serving in a conflict.
The statement fascinated me, because it assumed, as many, perhaps most Irish people do, that conflict is a choice. That if a country chooses not to be involved in war, then it doesn’t have to be.
It’s the sort of utopian view of war that only two sorts of countries can indulge in: ones that are armed heavily enough to make an aggressor think twice, or one that is actually physically hiding behind well-armed and friendly nations. Guess which one we are.
The statement caught my eye because I’d been reading tweets from the various Baltic ambassadors to NATO. Well, someone has to. But all three are full of reports of their local forces, both full-time and reserve, engaged in exercises and training with NATO partners. All three, along with their partners, are genuinely concerned at the possibility of a Russian attack on one of those countries under the pretext of protecting the Russian minority living in them.
Ordinary Estonians are giving up their weekends to drill and train in guerrilla and interdiction tactics to delay invading Russian forces until their NATO partners can reach them. Indeed, each country has seen the number of external NATO forces increase within the country for both training assistance but also as a deterrent against the aggression of the Kremlin.
Imagine an Irishman telling those Estonian farmers, bus drivers and shopkeepers that if they don’t want a war, they should leave NATO and tell the Russians that they want peace. That you can avoid war by just not participating. That NATO are the baddies.
If there is a conflict in the Baltics or elsewhere, it’s possible that we may not be directly involved. The US may or may not need to use Shannon. That’s assuming the US helps: we can’t be certain with the new guy. He might want a deposit first.
But supposing the US requested the use of Shannon as an emergency landing facility, and it was followed up by a threat from the Russians that such use would make Shannon and its surrounds a military target. Would we tell the Russians to get stuffed? Or block the runway to stop damaged US planes from using it, possibly threatening the lives of US pilots, live on US television?
Either way, we’re suddenly involved.
Ireland doesn’t do war. That’s not to say the Irish don’t do war, as those thousands of Irish who fought in the allied forces can testify. Or those Irish who went during the Spanish civil war to fight against fascism (socialists, liberals and republicans) or to complain about the food (the blueshirts).
But as a country, war is something that happens to other people because they sort of like it or are a bit mad. If the Russians bombed us half the country would blame the Americans, waiting for the Russians to arrive so they can sue them for compensation.
Yet even in 1916, in the proclamation, we recognised the support of gallant allies. Would we have been outraged if tiny Estonia (which in fairness had its own problems in 1916) had sent troops to help fight during the Rising? Or would we fete them today as heroes and friends of Ireland? Yet if Estonia, a tiny free country dominated by a larger aggressive and imperialist neighbour asked for our help, our response would be “that’s not our problem”? Is it because we see ourselves not as a nation that shapes events but primarily as a victim nation that constantly needs help from others?
The truth is that if the Baltics asked for volunteers to help defend them, I suspect that there would not be a shortage of Irish volunteers willing to fight to defend other small free nations, even if collectively as a people we washed our hands of it.
After all, even in our own war of independence most people sat it out to see what side triumphed, then stormed in at the end claiming they were onside all along.
It’s an Irish tradition.