Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Traditional Neutrality doesn’t work when you’re fighting Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 18, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

blofeldPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

I was speaking this week to the managing director of a small Irish software company who was just back from the states. He was telling me that he had been attending a technology conference where one speaker had announced that the Third World War was currently being waged. What had struck him, the Irish businessman told me, was that there was a murmur of agreement about the statement. That this was not a shocker to the delegates. It wasn’t even news.

Every day, across the world there are battles going on, between hackers, private companies, state players, criminals and terrorists, with the battlefield being the online systems that run modern life.

You say this to people of a certain vintage and there’s eye-rolling and some remark about watching too much James Bond. But consider that only last month NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre held a gathering in Talinn, Estonia, of nearly 600 experts in the field to discuss the securing of vital infrastructure from cyberattack. If NATO, the world’s preeminent defence organisation is taking the issue seriously, then it needs to be taken seriously by us too.

There’s still a feeling amongst many ordinary people that the threat is somehow otherworldly, something that doesn’t affect real life or if it does is of nuisance value more than anything else.  But consider someone accessing air traffic control, or the national electricity grid, or wiping electronically stored medical files, or the ATM system. Picture having no food in the house for your children, and having no cash and your cards not working, things that seem minor until suddenly you can’t get diesel for your car or feed a hungry child.

What’s more worrying is the source of the threat. James Comey, the former director of the FBI, told the United States Congress last week that Russia did interfere by a variety of methods in the 2016 US presidential election. That’s one level. An active attempt to shut down, for example, our nation’s electrical grid would paralyse the country and possibly cost lives.

Then consider the culprits. The Russians? Of course? Terrorists? Possibly. But even more so, even, yes, private criminal enterprises with the power not just to commit identity theft or online banking fraud. But using ransomware on major corporate or national systems goes from being a heist to an attack on national infrastructure. Sounds far-fetched, but we’re not talking some guy sitting in an underground lair stroking a cat. We’re talking exceptionally bright hackers in an apartment somewhere, in Moscow, in Lisbon, in Bristol, in Oranmore with the power to inflict damage on vital systems as disruptive as if they’d bombed it.

In recent weeks we’ve talked about the possible need for an Irish intelligence service. It has been raised in the light of the Manchester and London attacks, but the threat spectrum is so much wider, and we need to consider do we have the capacity and the expertise to deal with threats to our national security and economic stability from Islamists to Russian aggression to freelance operators.

Our traditional response, that sure aren’t we grand lads altogether and sure why would anyone have a beef with us is complacent and ends the day a half dozen bodies lie bleeding in the street outside a US multinational, or a commercial drone bought for a grand explodes a homemade IED with ball bearings over Croke Park during the All-Ireland. We are goalkeepers, and they are strikers. We have to be lucky always, they only have to be lucky once.

The old Irish neutrality works on the basis that all players are rational nation states, and no one would be interested in us. That’s no longer true. A future referendum in Ireland on an EU treaty would be of huge interest to the Putin regime who regard weakening the EU as a policy objective. Of course they’d interfere in our campaign. Putting the Putin regime aside, as with so many things in the age of globalisation, even terrorism has been outsourced and made cheaper and accessible to all. The fear of losing all your laptop files is terrorism, albeit at a nuisance level. Shutting down the approach lights to Dublin Airport is a different scale. The difference is that the latter no longer needs a nation state’s resources to carry out. Look at the recent terror attacks: they’re more the act of a terrorist franchise than part of a wide and coordinated conspiracy.

If you believe that traditional neutrality will keep us safe from those attacks, you are mistaken, because many of these attacks may not even be ideological but pure and simple criminal extortion: give us X or Y happens.

We have a fetish in Ireland about military neutrality, and it seems to come in two forms. The first is the sheer terror that we’ll be conscripted to fight in someone else’s reckless foreign adventure, something which doesn’t just happen unless the national political system wants it to happen. The French and Germans, key members of NATO, refused to send troops to engage in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and guess what? Nothing happened to them. Bottom line is that the only people who decide where Irish troops go are the Irish.

The second fetish is about spending money on military equipment. This is by far the more surreal view, mixed in with a weird analysis that we would never apply to any other item of public expenditure. Ask the Irish to spend taxes on an MRI machine, they’ll have no problem, even if we don’t need it. It could sit unused for weeks at a time in the corner of a regional hospital, a hulking totem to what a compassionate people we are. But spend money on tanks or God forbid armed aircraft and it’s the foreign policy equivalent of saying “Candyman” five times into a mirror.

Having said that, spending money on national security, from terrorism to infrastructure security from  cyber-attack is something an Irish government could justify. Of course, we would have to go through the usual carry-on such as finding an Irish name for the agency that nobody will remember, a huge debate over the terms, conditions and pensions of its employees, another row over where the first director should be a guard or some ex FBI guy, and then finally the Healy-Raes will kick up blue bloody murder unless it’s based in Kerry.

Yes, we’ll go through all that rigmarole, but here’s the big deal. Such is the task of monitoring and acting quickly on intelligence against threats that we’re going to need help from whomever is the best at this, and that means the Americans, the Brits, the French, the Germans, NATO, basically all the people we say we have nothing to do with because we’re neutral. We need the National Security Agency and GCHQ to be listening in to our phones and reading our messages and teaching us how to do it. We’ll need our own well-staffed and equipped GCHQ.

See, that’s the issue. There is no neutrality anymore, at least, not as we know it.  We are under attack now. The HSE was attacked two weeks ago. We are a target rich environment as an EU member, the backdoor to the UK and a major recipient of US investment.

It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. We need to start spending the money.

If we succeed the public will probably never know. But if we fail it’s all we will ever talk about.

 
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News from the Future: President Gonzalez survives assassination attempt by Secret Service Drone: Hackers suspected.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 17, 2017 in Fiction, News from The Future!, Not quite serious.

News Future logoDateline: Washington DC, 2042.

A gun battle between US Secret Service drones and another USSS drone believed hacked by as yet unknown sources narrowly avoided the assassination of President Gonzalez as he spoke in the Rose Garden in the White House earlier this morning. The president had been making remarks to a delegation from the European Parliament when a protocol detected an attempted hack of one of his BodyGuard, and ordered other drones to secure the president. Seconds later, the rogue drone drew its sub-machine gun but was hit dozens of times by other drones as two human Secret Service offices rushed the president away from the scene and into the secure bunker in the building.

The rogue drone was completely incapacitated by gunfire. The Secret Service moved quickly to reassure both the public and elected leaders that the service’s firewall had worked exactly as planned, detecting the hacking attempt and on determining it could not block it, delaying it long enough to mobilize other drones to eliminate the threat. The USSS also pointed out that the BodyGuard, built by McDonnell-Douglas Robotics, are designed specifically to prevent a mass hacking.

Secret serviceThe director of the FBI, the Comey-Mueller 3000 AI Entity, has announced a full investigation. This is the second time a protective drone has been hacked to attack its principal. In 2035 former President George W. Bush was attacked by his own drone on his ranch in Midland, Texas. The drone was neutralized with a chainsaw by the president after been beaten with a frying pan by Mrs Bush. The FBI later arrested a neo-Nazi cell angry with the former president over his condemnation on racial attacks.

 
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All hail our new robot Taoiseach.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 15, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

robotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

“Colossus: The Forbin Project”, is a great science fiction movie from the late 1960s which is a favourite of mine. It tells the story of a scientist, Charles Forbin, who builds a supercomputer for the president of the United States. The computer, Colossus, will control America’s nuclear arsenal under the thinking that if every country knows that the US can’t be psychologically bluffed anymore, they won’t dare attack it. Nobody thinks to test the damn thing before they turn it on, and when they do, Colossus announces that things would be much better if it ran everything, and it means everything. It then suggests that anyone who disagrees with it might like to discuss the matter with the business end of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Much hijinks ensue.

I’m reminded of the movie every time I read or hear a discussion about technology and robots replacing human jobs,  which is beginning to happen so often that I suspect it’s the robots writing the pieces.  But every time I see it, I always think an Irish Colossus would work quite well, if only because it would blow the whistle on so much of the spoofery of our elected leaders.

Take the latest observation from the Healy-Rae Party on the matter of the impairing effect or not of three pints of Guinness. To his credit, Danny Healy-Rae is not much different from many other backbenchers in both houses, shooting their mouths off looking for attention. The country looks over in their direction, rolls its eyes, hopes that the BBC or the late night US comedians don’t notice, and we all carry on about our business.

We’re missing a trick here.

See, if we had our very own automated Colossus-like RoboTaoiseach, it could approach the whole situation differently. First of all, it would recognise that Deputy Healy-Rae has been sent to the Dail by the people of Kerry, and those good people have a right to be heard.

Then it could maybe rapidly telephone poll the good deputy’s flock. Do they actually want to be able to get behind the wheel of their cars with a few jars on-board? If half of them back up their elected representative, RoboTaoiseach could then announce a pilot scheme, where drink driving thresholds in Kerry could be reduced for six months to see what happens. Finally, RoboTaoiseach could organise checkpoints along the Kerry border to ensure that the experiment doesn’t accidentally spill, pardon the pun, into the rest of the country.

We then sit back and watch. Maybe it works fine. Maybe he’s right, and the issue of late night rural transport is resolved with only minor issues. Or maybe late night Kerry turns in “Mad Max in Killarney” and we’re stacking up the bodies, all victims of The Healy-Rae Law, which of course RoboTaoiseach will naturally call it. Credit where it’s due.

Either way, we learn a valuable lesson.  Firstly, that the people of a county and the person they send to Dublin will be listened to.

Secondly, imagine the wave of sheer terror that would sweep across our politicos if they thought that RoboTaoiseach would actually attempt to at least test drive every attention seeking utterance they made. Even worse, making sure the voters knew that the latest wheeze was the initiative of senator X or deputy Y.

Ah, but they’re a wily bunch, you say. They’ll just keep calling for more spending on things.

A demand for more money for Bus Eireann workers from Deputy X? Sure. No problem.

When RoboTaoiseach deducts an extra €1.50 a week from every PAYE workers’ payslip, and deducts €1.50 from every pensioner’s weekly payment, and proudly declares it the Deputy X Bus Eireann Tax to build up the fund to deliver on his demand, we might see a change of heart.

Scrap the water charges? Easy-peasy: here’s the Deputy Murphy General Taxation Water Levy as ordered.

Across the land politicians would start sweating every time a microphone was put under their nose for fear that RoboTaoiseach might hear them and try to implement whatever they spew out, consequences and all.

All that guff about reforming the Seanad and neutrality and a right to housing? Watch the looks of sheer horror on their faces as RoboTaoiseach starts reading through Fianna Fail and Fine Gael manifestos and actually implementing what’s in them.

Watch RoboTaoiseach, listening to a rural politician complain about poor mobile phone service in his parish start assembling a mast to resolve the issue, and then take the deputy to task l on the floor of the house when the same deputy objects to masts being built in the parish.

There’d be political trousers destroyed everywhere.

Eventually though you could see Irish politicians come to love RoboTaoiseach the same way they love the county manager system. They’d almost certainly end up being delighted at being able to go home to the parish and nod sagely at their disappointed constituents.

“Sure look it,” they’d say, eyes darting around to make sure there was no RoboTaoiseach drone hovering overhead listening out for rogue political promises.

“Of course I want to get the county billions without paying any taxes. This parish deserves nothing less,” he’d whisper.

“But that bloody robot up in Dublin…”

Just in case you’re wondering, this column was not written by a robot…was not written by a robot…was not written…

 
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We don’t really want a well-run country.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 1, 2017 in Irish Politics

Previously posted in The Times Irish Edition about 2 years ago. I’m reposting because I think it gets to the nub of many of our problems. 

Almost every week one of those head shaking fist clenching what-sort-of-country-are-we issues charges to the top of the national attention span. This week it was a homeless family sleeping on the streets of Dublin. Last week it was the size of apartments being built in Dublin. A few weeks ago it was people on trollies in A&E.

The response is always the same. Bloody politicians. If they’d only give a damn or stop counting their expenses for five minutes we could get this thing fixed. If they weren’t so out of touch. If they’d only care for five minutes about what The Ordinary People want, we’d all be grand.

Here’s the thing: Irish politicians are painfully in touch with what The Ordinary People want. Say what you will about TDs, they can be corrupt, two-faced, stupid, bigoted, but the one thing they can’t be is lazy. If you as a sitting deputy don’t pay constant attention, through regular contact with your constituents, you will lose your seat. There have been a handful of exceptions, nearly all in Dublin South. But the rule stands. Irish politicians as a bunch lie awake at night worrying about what their constituents are worrying about. Not just that. They’re a remarkably flexible bunch when it comes to winning votes too. If there is a thing that will make it more likely that you’ll give them your first preference vote, they’ll do it. Whether it’s a new policy or even possibly sexually pleasuring you, if, in their mind it seriously increases the chance of the scratch on the day, they’ll seriously consider it.

Which is why A&E and urban planning and homeless service provision is the way it is. Not only will those issues not win them votes when they fix them, but the actual act of fixing may cost them votes. It’s the product of the Irish silo mind, the inability to only see the issue you care about and none of the benefits or costs attached to that specific issue.

Take A&E for example. Supposing a plan is put in front of Leo which will ensure that every person who attends A&E will get a proper bed if needed, and get through the process in two hours or less. Great news, you’d think. But as our dashing, reforming minister reads the report he realises that the cost of making the plan work is to radically change the working conditions, hours, etc  of nurses, and not in a good Bertie Ahern There’s A Few Quid For Your Trouble kind of way either.

Now he has a political decision. If he implements it, he could cost his party the actual votes of furious nurses, their families, and those odd people in the country who believe nurses can never ever do wrong, possibly because they sub-consciously associate them with nuns. But, on the plus side of his political balance sheet, there’ll be the votes of the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of voters grateful that finally one of their elected leaders has shown the leadership to fix the perennial A&E trollies crisis.

Except there isn’t. If Leo fixed A&E there’d hardly be any votes in it at all, because that’s not how Irish voters vote. They vote, for the most part, in anger or for local bucko who got your granny up the list for her new knee after she had that fall and her in her 83rd year. Reward a party for a job well done? Not in this country because there’s always something to be furious about. Just listen to Joe.

It’s almost counterintuitive, but there are more votes to be had in not fixing problems. You don’t mobilise the vested interest against you, who will actually allocate preferences on the issue. Same with homelessness. Hardly anybody will vote on how a politician deals with this issue. But try and build a homeless shelter at the end of their street and see how quickly it affects your first preference vote. Proper urban planning? Same again. The number of people who vote on the issue will be in the dozens, and they all probably know Fintan O’Toole personally. Safer to do nothing.

The truth is that our electoral system, based on small geographical areas, is almost purpose built to prevent national or strategic issues from being discussed at election time. Maybe there are a few thousand people across the country who care passionately about proper planning of our cities, but under the current system their votes are dissipated across dozens of constituencies and rendered harmless. If we had some sort of national list system it might be a different story, but we haven’t nor will we ever.

Ireland is arguably one of the most effective democracies in the world, because our TDs do have a de facto window into the soul of the Irish people and often see what the people really want. They didn’t want to bail out the banks, comes the angry shout from the jutting chinned hipster at the back with the “Corbyn!” badge. No, but even behind that what the really wanted was stability, and that’s what they got.

Because that’s the real ability of a successful politician: not to listen to what they say they want, which is nearly always said for the consumption of their peers, but to know what they feel, what they really want.

Mouthing off about social justice whilst trousering tax cuts. That’s the real Irish voter soul on display.

Copyright © 2017 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.