Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Elected mayors are the silver bullet

Posted by Jason O on Sep 30, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

For many Dubs there is a special place reserved in Hell, even beneath the frozen alive for all eternity form of Judas Iscariot, just for that bane of the average Dubliners’ life, The Corpo.

The Corpo, or to give it its formal title, Dublin City Council, gets terrible stick. Of course it does, being given the thankless task of governing a region of the nation for which permanent indignation is the default setting. More than most other counties, the county symbol of Dublin should be a Dub shuffling along with an inflatable crucifix, given my native county’s natural disposition towards believing everything is just terrible.

Let’s be clear: Dublin City Council isn’t the worst. It makes mistakes, of course, but as with so many Irish institutions it suffers from a lack of ownership. Most Dubliners don’t think of the city council as their council, and so its decisions are dismissed as at best arbitrary and at worst the product of some hidden elite agenda. Dubliners don’t elect the man who actually runs the city, Owen Keegan. A man who will spend a budget of nearly €863m in 2017. Yeah, sure, the city council nominally sets the budget. We all know the reality. Once the rubber stamp thumps down on the budget, it’s over to Owen.   

Just look at the debates on getting cars out of the city centre, or building proper physically segregated cycle lanes that don’t rely on the frankly overrated power of a millimetre of paint to protect cyclists from traffic. Indeed, local authorities would probably be just as effective using the cycle lane paint to paint pentagrams on our roads to cast Satanic spells to protect cyclists. I doubt it would be any worse.

These are big issues, with strong arguments on both sides. The decision to reduce car access to the city centre is one which will have an impact on the quality of life of both people who use the city centre and those who drive there. It’s a question of convenience versus a more continental lifestyle.

These are issues that affect ordinary Dubliners every day. That’s why there was such heated debate about them during the local elections in 2014.

What’s that? You don’t remember that debate? Actually, you’re right. You don’t recall it because it didn’t happen, because our local elections are so parochially focussed that city or county-wide issues hardly ever get debated. Instead, you get right down to an individual lamppost or speed ramp on a street, or the future of the Palestinian people. But the future of Dublin city? Never.

There’s a very simple reason why. There are no votes in it. There is no time when you as a voter get to vote for a person at local level with the responsibility to actually make decisions.

TDs lobby. Cllrs call for things. But actual county-wide decisions are for the most part made by unelected county chief executives. It’s not that they make bad decisions. But they’re not our decisions. I attended a briefing in Dublin City Council years ago in my Progressive Democrat days where the then city manager, John Fitzgerald, and his team laid out the strategy for the development of Dublin. It was very impressive, and his team were well on top of their briefs. But they actually laughed out loud when asked about councillor input. Not out of arrogance, but because councillors for the most part just weren’t interested.

Take another county or city-wide issue: housing. Who is in charge of building houses in the city? Who can we fire in the polling booth for not delivering? Local councillors are more interested in stopping housing developments to placate voters who have actual homes. Only a county-wide mayor has a big enough constituency to be genuinely frightened by people who use housing as their first preference deciding issue. Imagine an independent Housing First candidate for mayor of Greater Dublin. He or she won’t win, but every candidate will be falling over them trying to get their second preferences. Suddenly housing is a real election issue. It’s the same with cycle lanes and reducing car access. A single-seat election, either at county or regional election, and suddenly every candidate can’t ignore those issues, because 50% of the vote is much harder to get than a usual quota. At a city-wide level, suddenly both the cyclist and motorist vote matters.   

This is why we need elected mayors with the power to raise money and spend it.

If there is a single political reform Leo Varadkar could introduce that has the potential to seriously change how Irish politics works, it is letting every county directly elect a full-time executive mayor.

From Dublin’s perspective, it would create a single individual not just charged with approaching the city as a region, but who could be dismissed directly by its people. Real proper accountability.

For the counties outside Dublin it would not only do the same but also recognize that Dublin shouldn’t be the centre of all politics and ideas. That every county should be able to set its own path.

Politicians don’t like the idea, because it shines the spotlight too closely on someone. Councillors say they want councils because it’s more democratic, but that’s not the answer. The reason so many councillors are against elected mayors is because a) they like their year-long responsibility free look-at-my-chain ego trip, and b) they like being able to hide amongst their colleagues.

“It’s not my fault X didn’t happen. I was in favour but all the other councillors were against it.”

In the ward next door another councillor is saying the exact same thing.

And the ward after that. And the ward after that.

But this changes everything. Suddenly there’ll be a new generation of public office holders whom the public know actually have budgets and the power to spend them. Some will do a Homer Simpson, blow their budgets in a reckless bid to be popular. Maybe so. Let them, because it’ll be the people of the county who will then have to suffer the consequences of their vote.

Some of the elected mayors will be awful chancers. But others will transform their counties, turning Leitrim into the Vegas of Ireland, or Wicklow into fashionable Brighton. Maybe the mayor of Kerry will fill the ditches of the kingdom with the overturned cars of people who have had very big dinners. Some may even try to turn Fingal or Dublin City into Havana or Caracas, putting commercial rates through the roof or trying to erect statues of Che Guevera or Stalin or The Unknown Provo on O’Connell Street.

Good: let them try. It’s time to take the stabilisers off the voters and the politicians.  

It’s the next step in breaking the Dublin Castle mentality that permeates the nation. That we are a nation of grown-ups who have to make decisions.

By the way, one final thing: Owen Keegan hasn’t been a bad city chief executive. I suspect he wouldn’t make a bad mayor either, and I’d seriously consider voting for him. But I would like the opportunity to make that call. After all, it is my money he’s spending. 

 

 

 

 
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We need to take the lead on tax harmonisation.

Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland Edition

Who would have thought that Brexit was going to be so boring? It’s going on and on and on and aside from the odd entertaining scene provided by Brexiteers united in a bond of trust akin to that of your average New Jersey gangster, it feels like nothing is actually happening.

As if that isn’t bad enough, our political parties know that despite the mind-numbing tedium of the process, they have to be seen to be constantly talking about it because it is, of course, very important to our open island economy. That would be fine if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and Labour and even (whisper it) the shinners all had differing opinions on what our response to Brexit should be. But they don’t. Each one is an interpretative dance saying the same thing: no border, keep the UK market open, and keep the rights our citizens currently enjoy both here and in the UK. Even an election won’t change it, regardless of whether FF or FG end up propping up the other, the Schrodinger’s Cat of Irish politics, both in and out of power simultaneously.

The funny thing is that there is a huge issue looming towards us which is going to require a huge national debate. It has the potential to tear us apart, destroy our European policy, indeed call into question if not our membership of the European Union itself but at least the Eurozone. Whilst Micheal and Leo are down in steerage, drawing each other like “one of your French girls”, there’s a wall of pain looming out of the night towards us and we may not have anyone in the crow’s nest with binoculars.

It is, of course, our old friend, tax harmonisation. It’s back on the table, it isn’t going away, and more to the point, we should be willing to engage. It’s time we start the national debate. Should we support a European corporation tax regime?

We all know the arguments against. Our sovereign right to set corporate tax is the closest thing we have in Ireland to the Americans right to bear arms. Whereas in the US middle-aged men dress up in combat gear and take up positions on streets with ridiculously unnecessary firepower, in Ireland corporate lawyers stand menacing with copies of the Maastricht treaty tucked in underarm holsters. We’re on a rock in the north Atlantic, and without the power to help giant corporations fiddle their taxes (sorry, achieve optimum tax efficiency) we have bugger all to offer them compared to other countries within the single market. That and we’re a bleeding island too, that doesn’t help either.

True, we do speak English. The Americans regard us as less objectionable than the French and not as scary as the Germans, and in any case they’re related to half of us. Also it helps that our nearest neighbours seem determined to win the Olympic gold in self-face punching, but the tax issue is a big deal to us.

But things are changing on the continent. Emmanuel Macron is busy trying to push through reforms to French labour law to, you know, let businesses hire people without the MD having to surrender a kidney as a hostage. But as his plummeting poll numbers show, he’ll need to do something to shore up the centre-left vote that put him in. What better way than kicking the crap out of mega-companies? Nobody likes them anyway, so make them pay more than the current somewhat modest contribution they make to our corporate tax coffers? Hence our problem.

We could panic, and try to hold the line. It would at least save us the hassle of having to think up a new policy. Lord knows, our politicians sure hate having to think up anything other than new ways to spend other people’s money. Didn’t we get through the first fifty years of independence on a single idea? That everything was the dirty Brits fault and if they cleared off out of the north we’d be in clover? That was quickly followed up by Jaysus, Look at the Size Of The Wallet On That German Fella! Now we’re like a non-violent Pablo Escobar, helping all sorts dig holes to bury whatever it is they’re burying, of which we’d be shocked, shocked I tells ye, to discover was money.

Now that era is coming to a close, and rather than roar and shout and play the victim, let’s confront a few harsh realities.

Yes, Macron needs the tax revenue. But so do we. Just go into McDonalds and see the stationary robot you type your order into. We’re entering a new period of human existence, where labour surplus (what we used to call unemployment) mixed with longer life expectancy will require huge wealth redistribution. Everything from more health spending to a basic income will require more tax revenue, and Ireland alone can’t raise that money if it is engaged in tax competition with other members of the single market.

The argument has always been made that we will be screwed by a consolidated tax base (CCCTB) because we lose a very attractive tool and get little in return as many of those companies, hit by taxes wherever they are in the EU, decide to move to the continent where the main marketplace is.

It’s a fair point. It’s also why Ireland can’t just drag our heels but have to leap forward with a proposal. That yes, we are willing to drop our veto to tax harmonisation. But only if it goes the whole way by creating a central European Corporate Tax Treasury. A central fund where all Europe’s corporate tax revenue will go, and where a country like Ireland, at a serious disadvantage being both on the Atlantic rim and an island, will be guaranteed a compensatory share. A share we can use to openly bribe companies to stay here, whilst enlarging the corporate tax take for all of Europe.

It’s a big deal. It might even need a referendum, given the fact that we would be effectively ceding some tax-raising powers to Brussels. This is high stakes, because the Brits have proven that they can’t stop European integration and we can’t either.

But we can turn this to our strength. Google and Apple and the rest aren’t dummies. They can see the argument on corporate tax is changing globally. Now, with the Brits sailing off into the 19th century, the corporations still have a friend at the table that gets them. That will listen.

Us. The island between Boston and Berlin.

But only if we take the lead, work that seat, be the bridge between our FDI friends and the Macron-Merkel alliance.  

Scary? Yup. That’s life in bed with the giant Franco-German elephant.

But rather than complain about being squashed, better we get an early say as to who gets what side of the bed. 

 
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When making choices becomes unpopular.

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

oil-rigPreviously 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.

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