Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Ireland needs an LBJ on housing.

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

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition

There’s a quote, probably falsely attributed to Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychiatrist, about the Irish being impervious to psychoanalysis. Whether he said it or not doesn’t really matter, because the thought behind the quote does have a nugget of truth buried deep within it.

As a people, we’re very comfortable with holding two conflicting views at the same time. We’re also, as a nation, unnaturally obsessed with What Other People Think Of Us. Combine the two and you end up with a culture where people say one thing yet are permanently unhappy because they don’t really believe the thing they say, and get annoyed when other people take them at their word.

The housing debate is the latest area where this applies. Last week the government seemed to engage in extraordinarily hamfisted attempts to lead public debate about the homelessness situation.  I mean, who on Earth thought that comparing our homeless figures to some other country would take the pressure off? Homelessness, particularly in Dublin, is a gut instinct, an issue you don’t really rely on figures but on one’s own experiences. Seeing bundles of rags shivering in shop doorways is what tells us there’s a problem, not comparing us to the Copenhagen metropolitan district. It’s nearly impossible to stand outside a pub in Dublin on a warm-ish evening and not have a procession of people begging off you. I counted eight people over a ninety minute period on one evening.

It’s an issue we want fixed, right?

Sort of. We say we do, and we get indignant as the issue seems to get worse. As the nights get cold and winter comes in, we all know people are going to die. We know that right now. There are people alive as I write this who will be dead, from homeless related causes, in the next twelve weeks.

Should we declare a national emergency? Hell yes!

Should we appoint a long-term housing czar, taking the issue out of party politics? Damn right!

Should we give him an enormous ball of public money? Of course!

Should we hold an emergency referendum to give him the powers to override legal and planning delays to rapidly build, to whatever height, wherever he sees fit?

Woah there Nelly, steady on there, now, let’s not go mad.

You see, the whole debate is stifled by a flaw at its core. The theory behind democracy is that it’s about the vigorous competition between competing solutions to common problems. The voters identify the problem, the parties duke it out, each pitching their own solution. Then the voters choose which option they believe is most viable. All perfectly logical, save for one vital conceit.

The voters are lying. They won’t admit it, but they’re willing to put up with homelessness if the alternative inconveniences them by building something near them they don’t like. But they won’t say that. That would be fine if there was a party willing to call them out on that. Like, say, a genuine left wing party willing to say that the needs of the wretched outweigh the needs of the already housed. But we don’t have a genuinely left wing party, just various shades of populist who start to sweat kidney stones if there’s a danger they might end up on the unpopular side of an issue. In the words of Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker: “There goes the mob. I am their leader. I must follow them.”

No, it’s much easier to bang on about how housing is caused by ideology, how the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail partnership government is riddled with corruption and builders money burning a hole in their Panamanian bank accounts and all the rest.

If only it were that simple. If the problem was just a load of crooks the solution would be straightforward. Vote them out.

But it’s not, and they’re not.

The reason they’re making such little progress on housing is because they know, deep down, the public want new housing built but only in places that won’t effect, you know, the public.

It’s as simple as that. Yes, we can join all the dots about planning and funding and zoning and height restrictions and dual aspect and minimum square metrage, and they all matter, but the politicians know one thing over everything else.

Local voters vote against new housing entrants into their area, and cast their votes for councillors and TDs accordingly.

Supporting new local housing needs political courage, and political courage in modern Ireland is not a plentiful commodity.

In 1957 John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer prize for “writing” (he didn’t) “Profiles in courage”, a book about US senators who took courageous stands on issues of personal conscience against popular opinion. Ironically, one of the greatest 20th century profiles in courage displayed was then by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, in supporting the 1964 civil rights act and the 1965 voting rights act knowingly destroyed his own party’s voter core in the US south in pursuit of black voting rights.

The Democratic party literally walked away from its own most racist voters. No prizes for guessing which party jettisoned its traditional black voters faster than you could say Abraham Lincoln and ran towards the white sheets, by the way.

Where is our LBJ? It’s a big ask, admittedly. Expecting an Irish politician to make decisions that they know are extremely unpopular and will almost certainly destroy them politically is expecting an awful lot. The sort of thing that one would never expect of the ordinary voter. On top of that, there’s also the reality that one’s noble action will probably not be acknowledged in one’s life- time. Look at how we regard the late Brian Lenihan compared to Brian Cowan, two men who pretty much made the same decisions.

But then, that’s the difference between a mere politician, of whom we have no shortage, and most of whom will be forgotten, and a statesman.

Even with the political will, it’ll probably take at least a decade to build the level of housing we need. That’s assuming, by the way, that as we build it doesn’t lower housing costs, improve the country’s attractiveness, and increase housing demand. But the political titan who makes the decisions will have been despised by the already housed and probably have been hounded from office way before the first new tenants and owners finally move into their new homes. Like those who spoke against segregation in the southern US states, their friends, work colleagues, neighbours even family spitting on them, he or she will have to be satisfied by the inner light. The voice that says you are doing the right thing.    

You don’t need courage to agree with the popular opinion. Those who supported marriage equality 20 years ago, they were the brave ones, not the ones last year. Those who opposed the 8th amendment in 1983, they’re the courageous ones. No one dared wear a “Repeal” sweater in 1984.

Show me a housing minister who says we’re going high-rise in Dublin and we’re going to fast-track it, and no, you won’t be able to block it in the courts, and I’ll show you a profile in courage.

 
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Imagine…an EU refugee safezone in North Africa.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 30, 2017 in European Union, Fiction, Politics, Writing

Last year I wrote a short novella, “A Little Piece of Europe”,  about an EU safezone for refugees.

Why fiction? Why this subject?

Because I’m convinced that the immigration crisis is a grave threat to the stability and indeed existence of the European Union. It is causing huge internal tensions, pitting European nations against each other, and is being manipulated by external powers that want a disunited Europe.

It is also providing fuel to various strands of neo-nazi, both within and outside electoral politics.

Finally, there is a moral question: if Europe is not obliged to do something about dead children on our beaches, then we have learned nothing from our history.

The more I looked at the issue, the more I became convinced that an offshore solution is the right one. Why?

First, because Europe must be able to control its borders and who crosses them. Ordinary Europeans expect this and if the centre-right and centre-left can’t do this, they will elect extremists to do it with violence and brutality.

Secondly, an offshore facility will allow us to provide security, safety, and a place to process and screen refugees according to our values.

Finally, let me stress, I’m not talking about some sort of Australian-style prison camp. I’m talking about a functioning city run by the EU to a standard that will allow refugees to build a life there, whilst slowly absorbing into the EU proper a controlled number of pre-screened applicants.

Why fiction? Because the more I looked at the issue and thought about it, the more questions arose. How would it work? Who would fund it? What problems would it encounter? The more issues that arose, the more I concluded that it was a concept best communicated within a story. So that’s what I did. Told a story.

This is a work of fiction, and so there is dramatic licence. But the core concept is in there, in detail.

You can read it at the link here.

 
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Immigration works. But that doesn’t mean we should not debate it openly.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 28, 2017 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition

If one wants to know how fast immigration can change a society, then look no further than my family. First, a disclaimer: my father was, and remains, a successful businessman and so we had what could be colloquially referred to as “the few bob”. Culturally, however, we were still the standard bacon and cabaiste one-generation-from-the-soil middle-class Dublin family. We didn’t quite know what the ads for Tetra Delta on the radio were for, but we did know that immature fluke was a bad thing. We knew that Lucozade was partially medicinal because it came in orange cellophane, and that the tearing sound of the sellotape being pulled off a tin of USA biscuits declared a significant social event, possibly involving a monsignor and that most fabled of Irish shrines, the Good Room. We do still have a priest in the family, which used to be standard issue in most Irish families, and he’s also an American, in at least he has lived in the US for most of his life and speaks with an American twang.

That used to be the law, I suspect. Every household in Switzerland has an automatic assault rifle to be used in time of invasion. We went one step further: in Ireland every house had to have an actual American.

Nothing unusual so far.

Then modern Ireland intervened: now there’s my stepmother, who is Filipino, and my young brother and two younger sisters who are half Filipino but born here.

Then there’s my sister-in-law, who is Brazilian.

This is all a big deal: I grew up in the generation that regarded Phil Lynott as exotic, yet now we have family parties and weddings full of Brazilians and Filipinos and others. Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, is regularly spoken in the house, as is Portuguese.   

Guess what? It’s great.

My father and my brother love their wives, and our family photos are now full of pasty-faced indigenous old Irish staring anxiously into the lens as if our souls were being stolen, and the new Irish, who actually look good in photos.

For my family, immigration has worked.

When I hear people banging on about “them coming over here” and the need to “look after our own first” I’ll be honest, the blood gets up. The immigrants I know work hard, mostly doing jobs many of the Irish won’t do. Maybe immigrants do take some jobs that Irish people would do, but more often than not I’d wager many of those jobs just wouldn’t be done at all. Would it force employers to increase wages to fill those jobs? In some cases, almost certainly. But that would also force up prices and we know who price rises hurt first. I’ll give you a clue: not the people browsing in Brown Thomas.  

In short, I’ve no doubt that immigration makes a country richer, attracting the sort of people with the initiative to travel across the world, away from their families and loved ones to seek a better life. A country benefits from having those sort of people in it: just look at the number of immigrant businesses you see around the place.

I’ll tell you one other reason why I think immigration is a good thing: it gives us a good kick up the derriere about what a great country we live in.

You see it in the faces of those ceremonies where people are given their citizenship. Getting their Irish passport means something. They dress up for the day. They proudly display their certificates and photos of the day they officially became Irish. They weren’t born Irish: they chose it.  

We could all do with a bit of that.

Having said that, there’s still a debate that has to be had about immigration.

First, it starts by admitting that wanting to debate it does not make you Sir Oswald Mosley. Immigration brings rapid change to a country, as my own family knows, and it’s perfectly logical for a country to want to debate, plan and decide what it as a society wants out of immigration.

Secondly, there’s nothing racist about a country wanting to ensure that those coming to live here share our values.

Of course, one of the reasons we struggle to even have that debate is because it is not one we are comfortable having ourselves. How do you inform a newcomer to our land of their obligations as a citizen when we don’t want to even discuss that amongst ourselves the indigenous population? Irish politicians can wax so lyrical about people’s entitlements that you’d can almost hear a bodhran playing in the background when they elocute. But get them to start listing out what obligations to the nation their voters have as citizens and they’ll leg it faster than you can say “Who left this tap running all night?”  

Finally, there’s a reality about immigration that needs to be confronted. It was brought up in many working class areas during the Brexit referendum, and there’s a ring of truth to it. Immigration may well generate wealth, and make a country as a whole richer. But there’s no guarantee that said wealth will be shared out in any noticeable way.

Many who complain that society getting richer doesn’t affect them in any positive way, or that the rich (who do benefit from immigration) don’t pay any tax anyway never manage to explain who exactly pays for the welfare, health and education services they benefit from. Because invariably it’s not them.

Many complain that immigrants are taking up houses and jobs and public service resources that the indigenous population could be using. There’s probably some truth to that. But there’s hardly any talk about how much tax immigrants pay, and for less rights generally. You can work and pay more tax than you ever get back in public services in this country and still be turfed out of it, or you can sit in front of the telly for a lifetime whinging about how you’ve been hard done by, and get to stay because you were privileged enough (and it is a privilege) to be born Irish.

We talk a lot about taking care of “our own”, but I’m not sure that I buy being “one of our own” automatically merits my loyalty as opposed to towards a newcomer who wants to play by our rules and contribute towards the well-being of our community.

Fr Brendan Smyth was “one of our own”. In fact, pretty much every pervert who molested a kid in this country was “one of our own”. The Omagh bombers were “one of our own”.

Immigration is mostly a good thing, but it does create new problems. Before we point the finger at immigrants for all our woes, let us all consider an ugly reality: the main challenge immigrants face is that a large section of the country demand of them standards that they’d be outraged about if the state ever applied to themselves.

Let us never forget: for most of our independence we had negligible inward immigration. We barely had the proverbial pot to relieve ourselves in either.

These two factors are not totally unconnected.

 
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If young voters want respect they must first create fear among politicians.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 26, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

pol books2Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland

Conventional wisdom is a powerful thing. Take the budget: every year, regardless of whatever party is in power, pensioners get pandered to. Governments throw whatever they can afford at them, and opposition parties give themselves hernias protesting that it’s not enough. If it was polite to render garments and fling themselves on the floor of the chamber, they would. selves wailing onto the floor of the Dail chamber they would do so happily.

Nobody dares to ask if this is the best use of finite resources? Is giving a pensioner an extra €5 really a better use of millions of euro than, say, directing that money into providing affordable accommodation for students?

Of course it’s not. A fiver is a fiver.

But we don’t look at it that way, and we know why.

Pensioners scare the bejesus out of politicians. Young people don’t.

We can’t be that surprised that as a result young people get screwed on issues like housing or job security. Politicians simply don’t believe young people are an asset or a threat to them.

One reason is that nobody is corralling young people into a coherent political force.

Take the Union of Students in Ireland, which claims to represent 374,000 third level students in the country. If USI was a party with a first preference vote that strong it would have gotten a vote equal to Sinn Fein and the Anti-Austerity Alliance together in the 2016 general election. Between them they won 29 seats in the Dail. No mean feat.

Ah, says you, but students don’t all vote the same.

That’s true. That’s also the problem, because that’s exactly what politicians think too.

That pensioners do vote the same way on the issues that relate directly to them. Target pensioner voters with a direct negative policy like taking their medical cards off them and they will come at you with a vengeance.

Young voters, on the other hand, are all over the shop, assuming they even turn up, and so can be ignored.

Whose fault is that?

Supposing, say, USI decided to actually field candidates in the next general election. Could the union deliver anything close to its nominal membership in first preferences?

USI has pushed voter registration in the past, and “lobbied” on student issues, but that means nothing if you haven’t got a stick to wave and a willingness to use it.

Think the IFA or GAA accept a nominal pre-budget meeting and a few scraps? Think they don’t have a good idea what they’re actually getting in the budget?

Yes, student opinions are all over the shop. Polls show that Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail respectively are the two most popular parties with young people but surely a USI candidate running purely on a platform of building more affordable student housing should be able to take a respectable share of first preferences in constituencies with major colleges?

On a side note, by the way,  the fact that SF and FF, ironically the most pro-life parties in the country, are most popular with young voters must raise an issue about how important those voters actually regard the abortion issue. But that’s a whole other debate.

Even if USI candidates failed to get elected, if a half dozen USI candidates got half a quota each, that would make politicians sit up because votes and preferences are the coin of the political realm. If USI warned that in the next election not only would it run candidates again, but it would publicly nominate specific candidates or parties for its second preferences, then they start to matter.

All that assumes that USI or other young voter advocates can get young voters to the polls in numbers that matter, and not just on a once-off like abortion or marriage equality. But make TDs fear for their seats and they’ll pay attention.

Decisions, as President Bartlet said, are made by those who turn up.

 
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Ireland is a great country. Why do so many of us get upset when someone says so?

Posted by Jason O on Dec 9, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previous published in The Sunday Times Ireland. 

If you’re ever sitting in the snug of your tavern of choice, two pints in and of a disposition to start a good all-cannons-roaring row, I’ve just the trigger phrase for you. Never mind your religion or football, that’s amateur hour. For the full finger-jabbed-in-chest and threat of jerseys being pulled out of shape in the car park later, just lob out the following:

“I think we’ve got an world-class health service.”

Make it nice and loud. Not shouty, just nice and clear. That’s all you need, because somewhere in the pub a pair of ears will prick up and a spike in blood pressure will occur. Because there is no shortage of people in this country willing not only to argue the point, but regard it as an act of heresy.

Now, I’m not talking a disagreement of HSE priorities. I’m not talking a debate about small and local versus regional and specialist. These are all legitimate points of policy debate.

I’m talking “Health service? We don’t have a health service!” The words third-world and medieval will be bellowed out like political shibboleths. There will be anger at you for questioning the popular myth that the health service is not in absolute chaos, incapable of delivering even basic services.

Yet here’s the thing: we have a good health service. By global standards, our life expectancy and access to high quality healthcare is very good. There are plenty of countries that look at us and aspire to be us.

And not just in health. I’ll go further. I’ll argue that we are a contender to be the greatest country in the world to live in. I’ll not guarantee it, but I’ll certainly place our name in contention.

You would be hard pressed to find a country with our level of political freedom, our standard of living, our social safety net, and our rights.

Yes, we have problems. Our hospital waiting lists or the number of people sleeping on our streets will tell you that. Our national debate over abortion is a battle about rights too.

But altogether, being an Irish citizen is, amongst the seven billion people on this planet, a winning lottery ticket.

You will live longer than most Africans. You don’t fear the secret police thugs of Erdogan or Kim Jong Un. You don’t fear the legal state executions of the United States. You don’t have the rigged elections of Russia, nor the toilet paper shortages of Venezuela. Any one of us Irish citizens, without even being born on this island, can be elected head of state. That’s not true elsewhere. There’s a four year old wandering around Windsor Castle who is head of state designate of Canada, Australia and New Zealand without even knowing what they are, never mind where they are. Unlike any Canadian, Australian or Kiwi.

Yet have someone tell you that, have an international agency or publication remark as to the great achievement this nation is and watch the anger. Read the comments under any good news story about Ireland, and the vitriol flows. It’s like it’s hardwired into us. If an Irish government told us that we’d get a full weeks’ pay but only have to work on Tuesdays, you know what the response would be. What? Every Tuesday?

What is it that makes us have such an irrational attitude to our national successes? That doesn’t see them as building blocks from which to turn a good country into a great country? I often wonder is it the Dublin Castle hangover, that hundreds of years of foreign rule has almost genetically programmed us to believe that we just aren’t really in charge of ourselves as a people.

That Them in Power are, and with that a permanent sense of victimhood and grievance to go with it, sub-consciously refusing to accept that we are the controllers of our own destiny? After all, who’s fault is it that we keep voting for the political equivalent of the rhythm method and then are shocked to find ourselves once again up disappointment duff?

We spent the first seventy years of our independence accusing each other of betrayal whilst thousands went off to look for a country run by someone else other than us to live in and give us opportunity. Bear in mind the ultimate indignity we never talk about: that from day one of our independence, our people were leaving voluntarily to go live under the people we’d just thrown out. There’s a country with victim hard-baked in.

You see it with Irish emigrants, who give out yards about our health service and employers and paying for water, then move to that paradise of socialized medicine and workers rights, the US, or that damp, waterlogged bog that is Australia. For some reason, having someone non-Irish demanding you pay for your healthcare or water is acceptable in a way we’d never accept at home. It’s as if the ultimate crime in Ireland is that of “having notions”. Look at your man, thinking he’s like the now-departed Brits, with his water meters and “rules”.

And yet: here’s a country that held onto democracy when fascists and communists looked like being the coming thing. A country that kept its culture whilst also using the world’s dominant language. A country that saw, and sees in European integration not sheer terror and inferiority but a playing pitch that we can not only compete on but compete on well. A country that dismisses the ideological strait jacket of right or left as the over-thumbed missives of fanatics. We have built a centrist homeland based on a mixture of freedom and Whatever Works.

The Irish model has its flaws. We see it everyday. 687,000 people on waiting lists is jaw-dropping stuff. But there are also hundreds of thousands of people who go through our health service every year, getting the treatment they need. There are dozens and dozens of nations who would look at us and say “We want that”. Our passports are cherished documents.

Most of all, we don’t have despair. We aren’t doomed. We know we can solve the waiting lists and build the homes if we have but the will to do so. But it will require us making choices about sacrifice, of time, effort and taxes.

That in itself is an achievement. A nation where its people face free choices about how we spend our finite resources is the ultimate demonstration of a successful sovereign independent nation.

Just ask anyone eating tree bark north of the 38th parallel, or sitting in a leaky boat in the Mediterranean. Or looking for a Twix in Caracas.

 
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Guest post: Amy Devlin on the Merkel/Schulz debate.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 9, 2017 in European Union

 

Angela Merkel: An Insight for Irish Students

Amy Devlin is attending NUI Galway, where she is studying English and German. 

As an Irish student who has lived in Germany and studies the language, I have a surprisingly limited awareness of the country’s politics. Recently German affairs have found their way into the Irish news, because of trouble forming their coalition government. A face which continues to appear at the mast of all these stories is that of Angela Merkel, a woman who I daresay all Europeans know, if not love. Yet Merkel’s legacy as German Chancellor, the equivalent of Prime Minister, is undoubtedly impressive; she has been in the position since 2005, winning four elections. Germany’s most recent federal elections took place on the 24th of September 2017, seeing the Christian Democratic Union, under the leadership of Merkel, win 33% of the votes, and obtaining the largest number of seats in the Bundestag again this year. The Social Democratic Party of Germany, led by Martin Schulz followed in second place, receiving 25% of votes. Following the election of parties to parliament, the decision of who would be German Chancellor remained. Despite a decrease in favour in public opinion polls, Merkel was re-elected, and her debate with candidate Martin Schulz, which took place on the 3rd of September, is indicative as to why.

The televised debate took place on the show ‘Das Tv-Duell 2017’ and revealed the candidates’ stances on key issues including the Refugee Crisis, migration and international relations. Claus Strunz and Sandra Maischberger served as moderators, and they wasted no time in setting the debate in motion. The first questions posed to the candidates were ones directed at their characters and public personas; these questions hint at how the debate will unfold. The candidates’ responses are contrasting and predict the course of the debate; Schulz was unable to grasp at his argument with convincing certainty, while Merkel gave assertive, composed answers, even managing a smile.

A major area where the candidates’ opinions differed was the topic of migration, and particularly the issue of refugees in Germany. Schulz criticised his opponent for her decisions in 2015, of course referring to Germany’s open borders policy, and quoted an earlier interview in which Merkel claimed she would repeat those actions. Schulz cleverly appealed to the working class majority of the population, where the most angst and uncertainty regarding the influx of refugees lies, leaving Merkel able to simply thank volunteers and point out the dramatic nature of the situation. This was one of the few instances in which Schulz gained the upper hand. However, Schulz was unable to hold onto that early advantage; the topic of integration provided Merkel with a chance to exercise her level-headed, reasonable perspective. She identified with the portion of the population who were ‘sceptical’ of Islam, and addressed the key question of whether Islam is a part of Germany, acknowledging the presence of the religion is indeed growing in the country. She finished her piece with the reassurance that Islam will be monitored, and mosques will be closed if unacceptable activity occurs. Jumping impulsively on the chance to disagree with Merkel, Schulz attempted to create an argument in favour of Islam, but failed to make a comprehensible sentence.

The tone of the debate was one of respect and appreciation; it is certain that the debate between German Chancellor candidates was much more amiable than any Trump-Hilton debate. The body language of the candidates was not defensive or offensive, simply professional and attentive, with straight shoulders and open arms and chest regions- a sign of the mutual respect and willingness to listen.

Despite both candidates managing valid, intelligent arguments, Merkel’s experience and capability clearly shone through. Her greater awareness of the international community and willingness to work with other world leaders backed up her arguments, particularly on the issue of North Korea and Turkey; she was an advocate for cooperation and teamwork, while contrastingly Schulz suggested cutting the American president out of North Korea negotiations and severing ties with Turkey. It is no surprise that Angela Merkel is serving her fourth term as German Chancellor, given her experience, confidence and collected nature which dominated this debate.

Copyright © 2018 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.