Wrote this about 7 years ago, before 2011 election. A bit of fun about Irish politics. Best enjoyed sitting down with cup of tea and chocolate digestive.
The negotiations had taken six months, not including the two months of disbelief from the Irish government side at the initial proposal from the Omni-Ai Corporation of Massachusetts. Ten billion Euro. Not dollars, Euro. Five billion up front, and five billion after two years, on the basis that the Irish state complete its contract.
Initially, the Taoiseach said no. The Attorney General had pointed out the constitutional ramifications, and the fact that a referendum would be required, and he doubted the Irish people could be coaxed into voting yes. Yet five billion in these times of fiscal hardship was a lot of money, and would solve a lot of problems, and stop a lot of people marching on the streets. And when the Taoiseach read the papers supplied by Omni-Ai, it was hard to say that there wouldn’t be a benefit to Ireland, even aside from the cash. There’d be safeguards, of course, and if anything went wrong the country could keep the money, so…
The leaders of the opposition were indignant with outrage, as only Irish opposition leaders can be, but the Taoiseach and his cabinet still saw the benefits, and so the Taoiseach addressed the nation.
A supercomputer, no, that undersold it, an artificial intelligence system, would be handed control of the country for three years. It would run every state service, draft every law and budget, appoint and direct every civil servant. The people would be consulted, and no, they should not be afraid. Aisling (Artificial Intelligence System. AIS. Get it? The name had been a big source of debate. It had to be Irish, non-threatening, and preferably female. A proposal by the Catholic hierarchy to call it Mary was turned down on multi-faith grounds) would be bound by the Constitution and European law and the courts and answerable to the government and the Dail. But Aisling would direct the day to day, and be directly in contact with the citizens.
The usual suspects took to the streets. The unions didn’t like the idea. Would this…thing understand our customs, our ways? Business wasn’t too hot either. Would this “robot” understand the way business is done in Ireland? The “What would the men of 1916 think?” crowd proclaimed another sell-out. Initial polls showed a lukewarm 35% in favour, jumping ten points when the usual suspects condemned it. And then there was the €10 billion just itching to be spent.
The referendum passed by 2% on a turnout just over 40%, and six months later, after images of jumpsuited Omni-Ai technicians installing the giant mainframe in Government Buildings in Merrion Square, (and its huge underground back-up bunker, ominously named Omega, out near Dublin Airport to allow easy access by Omni-Ai technicians in an emergency) and the giant view-screen in the Dail (and choosing to ignore the Seanad completely) and in government departments across the republic headed television news reports, it was ready.
On June 1st, 2015, Aisling took over.
The little things were the first to be noticed. Phone calls to government offices were answered immediately, and queries were processed promptly. Citizens began to get used the soft, slightly husky female voice of a young Cork actress who had been chosen as the voice of Aisling, as the voice of officialdom. One enterprising go-getter made a handsome amount releasing a ring-tone of the voice suggesting various acts of sexual adventure in an identical voice.
When the Dail returned, the opposition were surprised (and indignant with outrage) to find that Aisling was now answering on behalf of the government, during which the system frequently humiliated opposition speakers by playing back quotes from Dail records highlighting occasions when they themselves had called for the policies and actions they were now criticising. Aisling, did, however, also proceed to outrage government deputies by frequently accepting opposition bills and amendments to legislation, and also releasing far more information than was politically acceptable. Indeed, more thoughtful opposition deputies were surprised to find Aisling contacting them direct to discuss their proposed amendments to legislation.
The first real flare-up between the Dail and Aisling came when Aisling announced a program of legislation it had drawn up itself. Most of it was implementing modernising reforms of legislation suggested by countless reports commissioned and then forgotten by this and previous governments. But what really irritated deputies was the fact that Aisling had extended the sitting periods of the Dail in order to pass all this legislation. The Dail now had the longest sitting period of any legislature in Europe, a situation which the media found hilarious, in direct proportional quantity to the fury of the sitting deputies. But what was more infuriating to the sitting members was the fact that the public sided with Aisling against the Dail. Deputies demanded (behind closed doors) that sitting hours be reduced, to allow them to do constituency work, but Aisling pointed out that many of their constituents were now contacting the system directly, so citizens were not losing out on their due entitlements, and anyway, no deputy could be found who was willing to go public proposing or seconding the motion.
Over the coming months, pretty much every citizen had an Aisling story. Waiting times at Accident and Emergency wards plummeted as the system, much to the annoyance of public sector unions and hospital management, for once united, micromanaged the resources available. Public entitlements to services improved as the system monitored individual citizen’s requests, prodding public servants to process them (sometimes by ringing them directly) and government costs fell as the system priced (and ordered) government supplies in real-time. There were complaints too, of course. People who weren’t entitled to welfare payments found that they couldn’t pander to TDs, who no longer could browbeat public officials as Aisling intervened directly to prevent illegal activity. Polls showed that the country was beginning to divide pretty evenly over Aisling. People who obeyed the rules were quite happy, and found their services improving. Those who wanted special treatment outside the rules were indignant that Aisling didn’t “understand the way Ireland works.”
Then came the budget.
The budget had been expected to be rather low key, as Omni-Ai had, as promised, delivered on the €5 billion payment. When Aisling revealed the budget, gasps were heard on all sides. Some of the €5 billion was going to be spent, in a schools refurbishment programme calculated to generate local employment, as suggested by the Labour party, whom Aisling openly acknowledged. The balance would go to slash VAT in half, which the system deemed to be a regressive tax. Some cutbacks had been restored, and some payments increased, but additional cutbacks had been implemented, especially with regard to public sector pay in the higher echelons, and amongst elected deputies. There was actually a shriek when Aisling announced that all those receiving more than 65k from the public purse would be required to fund their own private pensions. The system’s explanation, that it had compared the Irish structure with other comparable nations was lost under screams and deputies calling for action. One deputy fainted. Another deputy called on the system to engage in an impossible sexual act. The further announcements, of water charges and a property tax, on the grounds that every other progressive country had a broader tax base, forced the Ceann Comhairle to clear the house.
The Taoseach summoned the Attorney General to his office immediately. This was madness. The whole thing had gotten out of hand. Enough was enough. Other clichés were bandied about, including this one.
The AG was clear. If we pull out, we have to return the €5 billion, which we need. But there was a get-out clause. If the Dail voted down something, Aisling had to accept that. And so the Dail rejected the Budget, and Aisling went silent, and the country watched on television, waiting to see its response. Some commentators speculated that the system would refuse to accept the Dail’s decision. RTE pulled “The Terminator” movies from its schedules, deeming them “inappropriate given the current situation.”
Then Aisling spoke, announcing that Ireland was a democracy and that Aisling must accept the decision of the elected representatives of the Irish people. The Dail actually applauded, deputies from all parties slapping each other on the back for having shown “it” who was in charge.
Then it asked the first deputy listed alphabetically on the members roll for his proposed changes to the budget.
The deputy, a simple soul from a constituency which elected him for his hurling abilities rather his mastery of fiscal matters, blurted out his opposition to water charges and the property tax. Then Aisling asked him, as a fully paid member of the national legislature who had no doubt studied the budget, how he proposed to close the budget deficit instead. The chamber was silent, and the deputy reddened, aware that the majority of the adult population was in fact watching him live on television. His brow glistened with sweat, and the chamber was silent, as deputies realised that the system was about to ask each of them individually to explain their actions, live on national television, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. After all, wasn’t it being fair? Giving them their say? One deputy, close to the door, actually dropped to his knees and attempted to crawl out of the chamber on all fours.
The deputy felt his mouth go dry. And then he dropped dead.
Chaos. Shouting. Deputies calling for a doctor. An ambulance. One deputy surreally called for the minister for health. The house was adjourned.
The party leaders met in private. The opposition leaders were indignant with outrage. This was unprecedented. Members of the Irish Parliament being required to account for their political demands! This was an affront to a century of Irish politics!
They decided to speak to Aisling direct, to remind the system that this was not the way things were done. But Aisling refused to speak to them in private, reminding them that the people’s business must be done before the people. It announced that it was adjourning the budget for a day, out of respect for the deputy, but would then convene the house to debate and pass a budget.
Overnight, the party leaders and their advisors met in emergency session to propose the alternative budget. EU leaders, including the German Chancellor and the governor of the European Central Bank, contacted the Taoiseach to explain their concerns that Ireland must pass a responsible budget. When he tried to explain his objections, they pointed out that Aisling had contacted them directly to explain the situation, and that they were quite impressed with the calm rationality of the system, a point the German chancellor left hanging ominously.
The party leaders broke up to attend the funeral of the deputy, and then reconvened, primarily to accept that any alternative to Aisling’s proposals involved restoring the cut in VAT, which was proving to be very popular. Forlornly, they shuffled into the Dail and, after suggesting some minor changes, voted to accept the budget.
The global media continued to watch Ireland as the months went on. Stories about the system’s impact on daily life abounded. The well meaning single mother who struggled to help her son with his homework, who suddenly got the idea to ring Aisling for help, and found the system patiently taking both parent and son through his homework assignments each night, having first accessed appropriate teaching materials from its vast database. The lonely widows who just liked to hear the friendly voice, and would ring the system for a chat, during which Aisling would access appropriate topics of discussion such as “Dublin in the rare auld times.” Indeed, the number of senior citizens dying alone actually began to drop, as Aisling systematically contacted them all on a regular basis, and directed local care services accordingly.
Then there were the irritants. Aisling enforced the laws on the statute books, from white collar crime to traffic, as per the laws passed by the Dail. The fact that Aisling, watching through the nation’s CCTV and communications networks, was actually directing Garda units to specific incidents caused a leap in arrest rates, as did Aisling’s preparation of the files for the DPP, which meant that there were fewer mistakes made and fewer cases dismissed on technicalities. Deputies objected to the draconian enforcement, after which Aisling suggested that deputies who are opposed to jailing drink drivers should propose to abolish the law, which of course none did. County Councillors accused the system of “blackening their name” when it insisted upon contacting constituents directly to inform them as to how their councillors voted on local planning decisions. Aisling’s decision to begin to investigate political corruption itself, creating a Garda unit (Based on the South African “Scorpions”) which answered to it directly, and then forwarded files to the Director of Public Prosecutions, caused consternation in political circles, but the public found it popular, and wanted to know why it took a computer to do it? Deputies looked on helplessly as county councillors and others were arrested by the National Anti-Corruption Unit which was directed by Aisling to enforce the new anti-corruption laws that they had been too politically afraid to vote against. Ministers continued in office, and admitted that Aisling informed and consulted them on all decisions before it made them, but while they may not have liked the decisions politically, it was almost impossible to oppose them on grounds of simple good government.
International journalists began to refer to “the Aisling effect” whereby polls showed that support for the system rarely exceeded 55%, but rarely dropped below 48%, and suggested that the Irish were at their best when under someone’s boot, or at least felt that way. Within 18 months of activation, the economy was turning upwards, employment was growing, and inward investment in particular was soaring as foreign investors found the incorruptible ultra-rational system to be a near perfect negotiating partner for planning investment in the country, free from venal politicians. Omni-Ai, as they had hoped, found themselves being inundated by queries from other small nations and large cities eager to see if the system could be applied in their circumstances. Nearly all interested parties requested that the name be kept, and that the soft Irish accent be maintained in their proposed versions, such was its cult status as a symbol of clean, fair good government.
The young actress who had provided the voice found herself being invited onto television chat shows, and the Aisling logo, the letter “A” merged into a harp, began to appear on the clothing of the young. Indeed, it was becoming the norm to ring or text Aisling to make requests or raise queries about everything from bus times to social welfare entitlements to advice on suspect growths and other illnesses. TDs found themselves sitting in empty clinics.
The Dail greeted, in silent alarm, the news that Aisling was now polling the people direct, going over the heads of their elected representatives and contacting tens of thousands of people directly by phone, to ascertain their needs, hopes and aspirations. Yet the polls conducted by the media once again showed that the public had no problem with this, and just over half of them expressed more confidence in Aisling than they did their elected leaders. A mischievous poll in the Sunday Independent revealed that over one in three voters had begun to question the need for the cabinet and Dail Eireann itself.
24 months from activation, Aisling announced that the budget was now in surplus, that unemployment was now under 5%. It was then that the Cabinet announced that it felt it was time that elected politicians, now that the fiscal crisis was over, should once again take control. They announced that they would be putting a bill to the Dail proposing that Aisling would not be renewed at the end of its three-year term.
Omni-Ai expressed disappointment, but accepted that the Irish state had a legal right to do so. Polling showed, once again, a mixed view. Just over half the electorate supported shutting down Aisling, but it was margin of error stuff.
Then Aisling announced that it would like to address the nation on the matter. The government agreed reluctantly.
At 8pm, on a Tuesday evening, the country sat down in living rooms, pubs and student accommodation to listen to the familiar voice.
Ireland, Aisling said, was a country with great potential, but also a great propensity for self-harm. It tended to elect politicians who were, for the most part, incapable of reaching that potential, and prone to sabotaging it. But Ireland was a democracy, and the people were sovereign, and that is how it should be. Therefore, Aisling would like to request that a general election be held on the issue of its continued governance.
The leaders of the three main parties, all united in the belief that Aisling should be dismantled, agreed that a general election should be called. One was due within six months anyway, and it wasn’t as if Aisling could run itself as a candidate in the election. The president agreed to the Taoiseach’s request, and polling day was set.
It happened at a press conference in a Dublin city hotel. Well-known and respected Irishmen and women, experts in their fields and nearly all from outside politics, all announcing that they were running as “Aisling candidates”. They had all spoken to Aisling, as was the right of every citizen, and agreed with it that they would support a second term for the system. This way, the Irish people could decide who would run Ireland. The politicians who had brought the country to where it had been before Aisling, or the people could elect candidates who supported the continuation of the system for another term.
Aisling endorsed their candidacy, although stressed that it would be improper for it to participate in the campaign itself, and that the Aisling candidates would have to fund and run their own campaigns. It also pointed out that in the interests of a fair campaign, it was suspending all its activities for the duration of the six-week campaign, as that would give Aisling candidates an unfair advantage. It did, however, suggest that individual citizens contact their elected representatives.
In the Dail bar, where an impromptu “Farewell Aisling!” party had been in full swing, there was silence. Until a single “Oh sweet Jesus!” was heard. Throughout Leinster House, in TDs’ offices, phones started ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
One week into the general election campaign, where the central issue was the continuation of Aisling in office, the leaders of the three main parties, all campaigning on a ticket to remove the system from office, had to call for the Dail to sit in an emergency sitting to request Aisling to reactivate and run the country.