Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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How can small parties protect themselves in government?

Posted by Jason O on Jul 15, 2020 in Irish Independent, Irish Politics


Previously published in The Irish Independent.

As a former Progressive Democrat I’m familiar with the propensity of Irish voters to give smaller government parties an almighty kicking. As a result, I must admit to having a certain sympathy for the reluctance of the Greens and Labour Party to act as the left testicle of the spectacle that is the mating act between the two bull elephants of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. 

I’ve somewhat less sympathy for the Social Democrats who give the impression of becoming the fresh pesto and ciabatta wing of the Alphabet Left, happy to adopt many political yoga positions but not so hot on getting into the mucking in and compromise of actually making governing decisions. 

All three parties face a reality that must be acknowledged. 

Small parties tend to have more ideological voters with much more elaborate expectations and are therefore more prone to disappointment. It’s not unique to Ireland: the Liberal Democrats suffered the same in the UK after five years of coalition, with actual achievements counting for nothing when a section of your electorate who bizarrely support proportional representation nevertheless get miffed when you enter coalition. 

The big mistake small parties often make is to assume that their voters will reward them for solid policy delivery, a lesson Labour learnt to its cost in 1997. Despite having delivered a balanced budget, a growing economy, lower unemployment, increases in public spending and welfare, tax reductions for the low paid and nearly the entire social liberal agenda, half their voters deserted them and with that half their seats evaporated. The Greens in 2011 and Labour again in 2016 suffered repeat fates, this time both parties being taken to the edge of annihilation.

The awkward fact is that losing votes is inevitable for small parties in government, and instead those parties should start thinking about minimising those losses.

One of the big secrets about our Single Transferable Voting system is that it can magnify how voters feel about your party. If you are popular, you can often end up with a seat bonus in excess of what your first preference merits as your party is transfer friendly and allows your candidates hold on until final counts, scraping in without reaching the quota.

That’s if you’re popular.

If the feeling of the country is agin’ you, STV can be like giving the average voter a roll of pennies to hold in their hand before they start giving you digs, giving their blows extra weight. Not only is your first preference down, but other parties’ preferences are flying around to add to your opponents and keep you out. As the Greens experienced in 2011, you can lose every seat despite being proportionately entitled to some.

With that horrific experience in mind, and aware that they have the two bigger parties in a position of leverage, the small party entering government should be demanding certain things to give them a better chance of surviving the inevitable drop in vote support.

For a start, they should insist on making Dail constituencies more proportional, which means making them bigger than five seaters. We’ve had nine seaters in the past, and it would give them a better chance of survival if their polls collapse by at least ensuring their party vote isn’t dissipated between constituencies but corralled into larger constituencies where they might just help save a seat. The enlargement of local council wards for the 2014 local elections saved a load of Labour seats when the party’s vote fell sharply. 

Or they could do something really radical. The constitution means that we must have STV in geographical constituencies, and that really can’t be changed. But what about moving the voters instead? What about giving voters the option of registering to vote by post in whatever constituency they wish? That way, small parties could have a small number of target constituencies and basically ask their voters to come to them.

This particular idea seems to send FF and FG supporters into apoplexy, but not for any real reason. Every voter would still have a single vote, and so what if you as a voter decide that a TD on the far side of the country represents your values more? It’s your vote, and if someone in leafy (we only have leaves in nice areas, apparently) south Dublin decides that Mattie McGrath is the man for them, so be it. It’s their vote. 

Secondly, they need to get real about local government reform, Aside from elected mayors, which could help deplete the opposition of leading candidates by banning sitting mayors from running for the Oireachtas, they could take advantage of the fact that the electoral system for local government is not outlined in the constitution, and go for something more radical. 

Instead of electing them by STV wards, you could elect say 25 of them in single seat wards as full-time full-paid “super councillors” to ensure local area voices, and the balance by a proportional list system, which would allow for the smaller parties to pool their citywide vote together and hopefully take some seats. It would also allow for city-wide issues like cycling and homelessness to come to the fore as the cyclist/homeless vote would be able to vote as a bloc as opposed to being dissipated across wards.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff. 

This can be all done by legislation, and could be part of the price for coalition, with the small party insisting on the cabinet responsibility to implement it. It’s happened before: small parties have managed to impose reform on bigger parties, as the PDs did on Fianna Fail by banning the dual mandate. 

It requires small parties to be as ruthless in protecting their own interests as FF and FG are in defending the status quo to suit themselves. 

In short, Eamonn Ryan needs to find his inner Frank Underwood. 

I suspect Alan Kelly might have less difficulty.

 
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Do voters expectations now exceed what a democratic government can reasonably deliver?

Posted by Jason O on Jul 12, 2020 in Irish Independent, Irish Politics, Politics

Previously published in The Irish Independent:

Congratulations. You’ve just been whizzed back to Leinster House accompanied by speeding Garda outriders. You were just in Arás an Uachtaran where the wealthiest communist sympathiser in the country gave you your seal of office as the new minister for finance. Within hours you’ll be sitting at your desk in the Department of Finance, looking at a list.
Go on, try it. 
Put the following groups in order of who is most deserving of more resources (what we used to call taxpayer cash), with you saying that the ones near the top are more deserving, and the ones further down less deserving. 

Nurses.

Other HSE staff.

The rest of the public service.

Mental health services.

Cancer support services.

Capital expenditure.

University funding.

Childcare.

Jobseekers benefits.

Pandemic payments.

Children’s Allowance.

Care home services.

Social housing.

Homeless services.

Reform of Direct Provision.

Defence Forces pay.

Garda numbers.

Flood relief.

Water services.

Pandemic preparation.

Overseas Aid.

Arts funding.

RTE funding.

Irish language funding.

EU budget contribution (CAP).

Rainy day fund.

United Ireland fund.

SME support.

Regional and rural development support.

IDA grants.

Old Age pensions.

Servicing the national debt.

Public service pensions.

It’s some list, and I’m sure I’ve missed lots of worthy causes and sectors. 

But imagine being the minister looking at that list with a finite amount of money and every single vested interest behind each one of those areas not just demanding existing funds but looking for more. 
Not just demanding more but not giving the slightest toss about all the other competing groups. Their message is that they want less than the total budget as a whole and you don’t want to give it to them because you are one of history’s most uncaring monsters. And the next one will say the exact same. And the next one. 
That’s not even counting the people (often from the exact same groups demanding more cash) demanding that income tax, VAT, property tax or commercial rates be reduced, each one reducing your revenue and ability to meet the above demands.  
What would you do? The sensible thing to do is to prioritise on some, but even that is full of dangers. Favour business in the hope of generating more tax revenue from economic growth and you’ll be told you’re favouring the rich. Favour welfare and you will never ever hear its lobby group say “Actually, that’s enough, thanks very much.” 
Every one you favour will result in howls of anguish from every other group that they The Vulnerable are being neglected and you just don’t care. A good section of the country will say you’re hurting them deliberately. 
You’ll probably end up doing what every Irish finance minister does: try and spread the money as thinly as possible in a nearly always failed attempt to pacify as many as possible and instead unite a huge chunk of the country against you. Each group pretends that it is operating in a vacuum. No problem ever gets enough resources to close the file, if that is even possible. 
What you almost certainly won’t do is start an honest debate about the nature of public spending in Ireland. That we now live in a society where a majority of the population expect far more from their government than it can actually hope to deliver, and resent having to pay taxes for what they are currently getting. 
That our political culture is permeated by politicians who make vague promises that cannot even be measured, never mind delivered, and voters who essentially ask to be lied to. 
Even Irish governments that do quite well, which is most of them by international standards, become rapidly loathed by their voters because they can’t meet the overhyped expectations that got them elected in the first place. 
We’re currently reduced to the spectacle of Willie O’Dea and Mary Lou McDonald furiously competing to see who can ram more free money down the throats of voters with little regard for the long-time financing of our public finances. Compassion, wellness, solidarity and social justice are deemed valued assets in public finance debates, although not when actual public spending is being decided. Tell an NGO they’re getting a 10% increase in solidarity and they’ll tell you to shove it, hands grabbing for the greasy till just like the rest of us. 
Politicians promising the moon on a stick is not surprising. It’s been going on since Willicus Odeaicus Publicus Spendicus promised more free bread and bloodier Circus Maximuses (“You’ve seen humans eaten by lions! Well, I promise lions trampled by elephants!”). The complete unwillingness of politicians to even attempt to educate the public as to the rod they’ve made for their own backs is surreal. They literally keep secret the huge and undeliverable pressure they put themselves under from the public for no good reason I can muster, instead letting nonsense about how the rich or business pay no taxes ferment and help their populist opponents promise yet more and bigger elephants.
Here’s a thought: if it’s impossible for Irish centrist politicians to educate their voters, is it time someone else do it? Is it time for ISME, IBEC and the SFA to take on the task of running a public campaign to confront voters not with a campaign to convince but the simple realities about public spending and taxation. Given our reluctance to cut the €5 billion a year that goes to NGOs and charities in Ireland to lobby government, would it be the worst thing in the world to set up an NGO to put simple economic facts in front of voters? 

In fairness, there’s probably a grant available.     

 
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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.  

 
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Irish Independent: Love, Sex & Murder in the time of Covid-19.

Posted by Jason O on Apr 11, 2020 in Irish Independent, Not quite serious.

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

But what about the adulterers? Nobody seems to give a damn about the chaos that the Coronavirus crisis will cause to all those people having illicit affairs? Where’s their grant? And before you get all upset about me taking the mickey out of this crisis, just remember one thing. We all own this crisis. It can take away any one of us, and as a forty seven year old ashmatic I’m on the higher-than-others risk list so yes, I do think I have a right to take the mickey.

All I can do is keep washing my hands, distance myself from others, and just hope that the bastard thing doesn’t somehow sneak in through my letterbox and do me in whilst I’m sleeping.

So, back to the adulterers. Imagine the stress they’re under, sneaking off to the bathroom for illicit contacts over Facetime, sexting each other whilst pretending to watch the “Line of Duty” boxset, and wondering what’ll happen with their lover trapped in the house with Him/Her?

On the one hand, it could confirm to each why exactly they’re having an affair in the first place, trapped in the house with Him snoring loudly in front of “The Eagle has Landed” having put away half a Marks and Sparks shepherd’s pie, or Her going on endlessly about what a cow her sister is and the way your one at the school looks down her nose at her because she drives a Range Rover. 

There’ll be erotic pictures too, both sides making a huge effort to get the lighting just right (again a struggle in the bathroom, using the one hundred and forty eight rolls of toilet paper to provide shade) and being extra careful when sending it because accidentally sending Tony in accounts a picture of you with your gentlemen’s ahem hanging out could lead to all sorts of disciplinary avenues if we all get back to work someday.

Phone sex whispered whilst out in the garden shed “fixing the lawnmower” is also a possibility, although there’s a whole etiquette at play here. Do you just charge in like some sort of gynecological checklist or do you set some sort of fantasy tone first, all the while peering through a half closed shed door in case one of the kids suddenly remembers there’s a Swingball buried in here somewhere. It’s a fraught business. 

But what if it goes the other way? What if she, trapped with her husband, starts to remember why she fell for him in the first place? What if he does? It’s unlikely because if we have learned one thing about human relationships is that once it passes the point of irritation for one side it is rare that it comes back. Just look at the number of stunningly beautiful people who divorced other stunningly beautiful people. But it could happen. 

Still, on the plus side, think of the economic stimulus when the crisis is over and the mid-priced hotels of the country are overwhelmed with Mr & Mrs Smiths staying “just the one night, thank you”, away at “business conferences”.

All that assumes that there won’t be a load of murders, of course. 

Estranged couples trapped in close proximity for weeks, and her finally beating him over the head with that leg of cured Lidl Jamon Serrano that he mocked her for buying. When you think about it, the timing is excellent. Nobody is coming to the house, or expects to see him, and she can always reply to any texts from his mates if any get suspicious. As for the body: well, there’s always the back garden, and although the neighbours might be surprised to see her giving the rose bed so much attention she won’t be the first to have discovered a passion for greenfingery in a lockdown. You can already see the curtains twitching.

“The husband left her after the virus. Ran away with some floozy, they say. Probably cracked up after two months of putting up with her and her Lady Muck ways. I saw her buying one of those giant legs of ham, sure what would you use that for? Who does she think she’s fooling? Although she has those roses coming up lovely. I wonder what she uses to feed the soil?”

But let’s not be too morbid, sure there’s enough of that. 

Just consider that somewhere out there in lockdown land will be some couple having an online date. Initially as something to fight the boredom, somewhere two people have been set up by friends, and there’ll be a mad effort to tidy themselves up (despite both protesting that they didn’t make an effort). His hair will be too long, making him look like an extra from “Game of Thrones” (or “The Streets of San Francisco” to an older vintage) and she’ll be angling to make sure her roots don’t show. Both will be trying to make sure the background sends the right message, her removing the entire “Fifty Shades of Gray” series from the bookshelf, him his entire “Star Wars” DVD collection. For most, it won’t work, a means of distraction for a half hour as they struggle through an awkward conversation and a promise (lie) to meet after normality or something close to it returns. 

But for one couple out there, the awkwardness will turn into easy conversation, then mutual interests, then their own vocabulary and in-jokes and both watching a Netflix movie at the same time across the country and texting each other quips and remarks and questions about “Wasn’t he in “The West Wing?”. And maybe, just maybe, a story in a best man’s speech. 

Wouldn’t it be lovely if something nice came out of this awful time?    

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