Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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How can such a creative country lack imagination so much?

Posted by Jason O on May 6, 2020 in Irish Politics

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

In a way, the blandness of the proposed Fianna Fail/Fine Gael agreement is a credit to us as a nation. Whereas across the world political systems are riven by vicious disagreement (The US, UK) or or dissent is simply not tolerated (China, Russia) we still have a broadly centrist system based around the idea of not getting up anyone’s nose too much. 

It could be an awful lot worse, indeed if anything that should probably be our national motto, because it’s true.You’d be hard pressed to find a better country to live in than this one, whereas there is no shortage of countries where the quality of life is worse or maintained by things we regard with outrage, like paying for water usage or requiring people pay for compulsory health insurance or indeed, in some instances, tax. Or even to work. 

That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems we need to solve. Before the big C transformed our world into a landscape of yellow and black warnings and measuring everything in two metre units we had big problems with healthcare and housing, and those problems will return along with the biggest economic challenge since FDR took office.

But as the coronavirus has shown us, as a people we have a capacity for adaptation and innovation. Both our public and private sectors have been incredibly impressive in solving problems quickly and effectively.

Which raises the question: we obviously have the brains and the skills, so why is it so hard to innovate in this country to solve problems without a global pandemic to drive it on?

The answer is Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. 

Now, let me be clear. Both of these parties have done more good than harm in this country. I know, you say this and a section of the country gets hysterical. I can feel people reading this and spitting all over their screens. 

Both parties infuriate, but I’ll take them over the US Republicans or British Tories or Orban’s Fidesz or the headbangers in Venezuela anyday. It’s been years since either of them shot their political opponents. 

But that is also the problem and the biggest obstacle to us making the next jump forward from a good nation to a great one. Their longevity, I mean. Not shooting people. 

The problem is that FF and FG now have inertia hardwired into their collective DNA. If they could have no programme for government, and were just in government to be in government I suspect they’d be quite happy with that. 

They’re not parties of the extreme, but not innovation either, because innovation is held in suspicion in Ireland. As a country, we don’t like change and both parties built their reputations and indeed their values on the concept of the minimum level of change necessary. 

As an ideology, it’s perfectly valid, but you can’t help feeling that they’re missing the opportunity of using the crisis to try to address some running sores in our society.

The single biggest one, for a start, could be telling the truth about economics. 

There’s a blatant refusal of Irish politicians to confront the Irish people with the reality that everybody must pay higher taxes to provide the level of services Irish people say they want. Indeed, knowledge of public spending and taxation tends to be in the realms of fantasy in Ireland, with obsessions about tiny amounts of money like TDs expenses, or that the highly paid or business don’t pay their “fair share” of tax. Even our definition of “fair share” isn’t defined. SMEs in particular, in paying commercial rates, pay substantial shares of county council funding yet get no public thanks for it. I sometimes wonder should county councils, with the consent of businesses, actually publish a list of what every business pays just to demonstrate the huge contribution made. 

If we are going to have a debate about resetting the economy, could we not start by informing everyone of the facts? Would it really be that terrible if the govt followed the advice of Eoghan Murphy and gave every citizen an annual breakdown of how much they pay in taxes and how much they receive directly and indirectly from the state? Or tasking the Department of Finance with running an ongoing economics education ad campaign? How much it costs to pay a nurse. How much the state pension costs. Who pays tax, and by how much. How much of the national budget is spent on the Oireachtas. What would be the objection? 

That it is political to inform people of these things? 

The other thing the new government should try is pilot schemes. 

Put 1000 people on a Universal Basic Income scheme and see what happens. 

Give the Garda a few dozen high visibility drones for patrolling both urban and rural areas.

Open a few rural post offices and Garda stations in the same buildings and see if it works. 

Give a few counties an elected mayor with full control of property and other taxes.

In short, experiment and innovate. 

Try a load of things and yes, some will fail but admit that up front.

One of the biggest excuses we use in Ireland to block change is that there isn’t consensus on an issue. That we don’t have a perfect solution to a problem, therefore should do nothing. 

It’s time to take a few small leaps of faith.

 
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The EU is doing pretty much what it says on the tin.

Posted by Jason O on May 4, 2020 in European Union, Irish Independent, Irish Politics

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

As with so many people, I’ve been spending time watching various boxsets, and recently finished “Star Trek: Picard” which tells the story of the further adventures of now retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, late of the USS Enterprise-E. (The fact I put E there is to confirm my Trekkie knowledge status, by the way.) In one episode, there’s a scene where Picard remonstrates with another admiral about the failure of the Federation (Think the EU with starships) to rescue millions of refugees from their former superpower rivals the Romulan Empire. The admiral (coincidentally resembling EU President Von Der Leyen) lays out the cool hard realpolitik of the situation: the Romulans were the enemy until very recently and that members of the Federation were threatening to leave the alliance (FedXit?) if the Romulans were taken in. 

In short, she said, the preservation of the Federation was more important.   

It was an unusual moment for “Star Trek”, which is usually (but not always) more comfortable with a straight goodies/baddies narrative.

It was also a timely scene, given the current travails that another multi-member political alliance (also with prominent French leadership) is going through, where principle meets pragmatism.  

It’s always entertaining to watch many in the now departed UK are still banging on about the EU and how doomed it apparently is. The Covid19 crisis is being used, in particular, as proof that the European ideal is some sort of gossamer-like substance that blows away at the first sign of a storm. One can’t help suspecting there’s a hint of the protesting ex-boyfriend about the Brexiteers, over their former girlfriend yet constantly hovering around Facebook seeing who she is now dating whilst adamant that they don’t care. 

Their criticism would be true if the EU were the cartoon superstate that Brexiteers always either believed it to be (through the wearing of an assortment of kitchen-foil based self-assembled headwear) or simply hoped it to be so that they could rail against it. 

The reality is that the EU is exactly what those of us supporting it always said it was: closely integrated but still a union of sovereign independent states. In a crisis, the EU is doing what it is supposed to do, clearing obstacles like relaxing state aid rules and negotiating “green lanes” through closed borders to get vital supplies through, whilst staying out of the way and letting member states do what they have to do to fight the virus at the most appropriate level, which in this case is mostly nationally.

The complaint that EU countries are putting their national interests first and foremost is a contrived one because that’s what EU countries invented the EU for: not to abolish sovereignty but to act as a de facto bionic enhancement of it, by giving national governments more tools to pursue the interests of their people. I’m a believer in freedom of movement but I also believe in the sovereign right of nations to control their borders and yes, close them in an emergency. 

Yet, even as they have done that, EU countries have been helping each other where they can, with medical resources where they can, caring for each others’ citizens, and helping to get each other’s citizens back to Europe.

The EU is not a federal government. Personally, I wish it was, but it ain’t. Instead it is a mechanism to assist cooperation. Nobody, including the Commission, wanted Brussels to be deciding who gets how many ventilators. 

Euroskeptics (and some pro-Europeans, it must be said) are complaining that the EU is not a top-down federalist superstate because, well, it isn’t. The robust debate over whether to have “Coronabonds” to fund our now eye-watering crisis debts is a healthy one, with all points of view being voiced. The EU will undoubtedly have failures during the crisis, but almost all will be because the EU institutions don’t have the power or resources to do what people now demand of them. 

That’s not a rupture in the union. That’s what a healthy democratic alliance does. 

By the way, there is one union of states where the central government has imposed orders upon the democratically elected heads of the national governments, and that would be the United Kingdom. 

I, for one, would be totally opposed to the EU being run in a manner similar to the centralised diktat of the UK, where the largest nation in the union can overrule all other members of that union. But that’s another day’s debate.  

It’s not that there aren’t lessons to be learned. The debate about a European army, or perhaps better named European Crisis Force, to be able to mobilise transport aircraft and rapidly build emergency field hospitals is a debate that has to be had. As is one about Europe’s seeming inability to rapidly manufacture emergency medical supplies.      

Then there’s Hungary, where the Orban regime is using the crisis to effectively create a dictatorship. Yes, every government has voted itself emergency powers, but Orban has form on this sort of thing, and has now suspended parliament and elections indefinitely, and there’s no place for that in the EU. 

There’s no system for expelling a country from the EU, but if the EU is anything it’s creative and it is time to call Orban’s bluff. I’m not paying my taxes for them to be used as some sort of Fidesz (Orban’s party) slush fund to keep a dodgy outfit in power.

Either Orban backs down, or Hungary has to go, by whatever means. Orban uses EU criticism as a means of bolstering power in Hungary. Maybe it’s now time for ordinary Hungarians to realize that Orban has created a Hungary that the rest of Europe does not want to be associated with, and act accordingly. 

Hungary is a sovereign nation entitled to respect. But so are the rest of us. 

For all the criticisms, Europe isn’t going away. It can’t.  

Copyright © 2020 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.