Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Here’s a little mental exercise to while away the coming dark winter nights. Try, if you can, to work out watch percentage of Irish political activity is guff. By guff, of course, I use the scientific measurement of political activity engaged upon to given the impression of activity for its own sake. In other words, a political activity which, if it did not occur at all, would have no discernible effect upon anyone not engaged in the production of guff in the first place.
Now, it’s not unique to Irish politics. Every democratic form of government has its own form of shape throwing. But what is telling about the Irish political system is that our entire political infrastructure, being based upon the British parliamentary model, is almost handcrafted for empty political symbolism. Just consider the fact that this Dail is the most fluid Dail since the great “Put Them Out!” Dail of 1948 where a five party coalition crowbarred DeValera out of office faster than he could you could say “Arriba!” The government has no majority, and is genuinely at the whim of the house. Individual TDs are at their most powerful in a generation. Is the Dail inundated with private members bills being patiently shepherded through the house? Actually, there are quite a few, on everything from the appointment of the Garda Commissioner to creating a new Republic Day bank holiday. But broadly speaking, the Dail isn’t for getting things done. It’s for empathising with voters, or at least looking like you do.
The Dail and Seanad are supposedly the great forum of the nation, where we as a people debate and tease out the great issues. Abortion. Neutrality. Immigration.
Except we don’t, because that’s not how we do things as a country. We don’t have public discourse. Indeed, if anything, we oppose it. Irish politicians still say that the greatest reason to avoid an issue is that it would be “divisive”, as if that’s the worst possible thing one could ever experience.
The problem is that almost anything worth doing is divisive. Storming the GPO was divisive. Rosa Parks refusing to do what the bus driver told her to do was divisive. Refusing to accept the drowning of women as a system of supernatural investigation and legal administration as anything but moronic was divisive.
In 1922 we kept the vast tract of the British legal and parliamentary system because it a) works and b) it’s what we thought what a grown up political system looks like. The problem was that it was designed for the British temperament and British culture, and not the way we actually think as a country.
For a start, we don’t like voicing our real opinions in public. There isn’t an AGM in anything from the GAA to the National Knitting Appreciation Society where actual decisions are made on the floor. It’s all stitched up beforehand, in the case of the knitters, literally. We don’t debate in the forum. We mutter in the pub corner.
From Dail chambers to county councils, the louder the debate, the less likely it’s about something that matters to that body in reality. TDs wax lyrical about potholes in their constituencies, whilst county councillors talk about the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Then there’s the decision making process. Just look at the councils this week, debating setting the Local Property Tax. Marvel as councillors who mere days ago would have broken down in tears at the anguish of spending limitations now fit themselves with beautifully handcrafted brass necks and take to their feet to demand the maximum 15% cut in LPT and the revenue it raises to fund previously mentioned public services.
How do they get away with it? Again, blame the British model, where every individual councillor can blame every other councillor for their decision and thus nobody is responsible. How many people know which parties actually control their county council? The national symbol is the harp. It should actually be a ball of smoke bracketed on each side by a mirror.
The funny thing is that our culture and history provides the solution. Back in the day before Strongbow decided to enter the private military contractor business, we had local chiefs who made the local call, and whom everybody knew made the local call. Indeed, in the Michael Lowrys and the Healy-Raes we still have that cultural hangover, the local big man fixer. What causes such frustration with our political system is that it doesn’t reflect our own political culture.
What would it look like? Directly elected executive office holders, essentially. Local mayors, local ombudsmen, maybe even a directly elected Taoiseach. People who are elected not to lobby or influence or urge, but people who actually have the budget and the power to make decisions.
There’s a whole tranche of Irish politicians who would go cold at the idea, of course. The sort of candidates who see politics essentially as a form of interpretative dance as opposed to actually making finite decisions from a list of infinite choices. Nothing new there.
At its heart, we still have not expelled Dublin Castle from our political culture. We have men (mostly) drawing down ministerial salaries and pension entitlements yet “calling” for things as if someone else is in charge up there in the big castle.
Say one thing for the Big Chief model: he couldn’t say he wasn’t in charge.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 5, 2016 in Irish Politics
, Not quite serious.
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.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 3, 2016 in Irish Politics
Growing up as a enthusiastic member of the Young Progressive Democrats in the early 1990s, one was aware of the hierarchy in the party.
First, there was Dessie, the boss (but not in the CJ way), rockstar, party founder. Then, there was Mary, Michael and Pat, the young (and they were. People forget that.) dynamos, each one a party leader in waiting in their own right.
But in the middle, just under Dessie, was Bobby Molloy. The adult. The grown up. To us, Bobby was Mr Solid. Everywhere else in the country, even in Limerick and the supposedly PD “heartland” of south Dublin delivering PD votes and seats was an often insurmountable challenge. But not in Bobby Molloy country, one of only two constituencies in the country where the PDs never lost their seat.
That wasn’t the party brand. That was Bobby Molloy, and understandable too. Some would say that it was the Fianna Failer in him, indeed that he was an FFer in all but name, but people forget: he didn’t have to defect. He could have kept his mouth shut and stayed in FF and been guaranteed a future, but he didn’t. He took the leap.
It was due to Bobby that the party had a conscience clause, something FF now takes as normal. It was also Bobby who delivered once, to a branch meeting, the best synopsis of what the PD credo was. We were, he said, the party that wants to make the national cake bigger, because that’s the best way of skimming a chunk off to help people at the bottom.
That was the PD credo right there.
Politics aside, he was a gent. He gave me, along with so many Young PDs, a kind word when he didn’t have to. I still remember, in a speech he gave, referencing remarks I’d made in a speech a half hour earlier. It doesn’t sound like much now, but when you’re a nervous teenager starting out it matters. It meant an awful lot to me.
Bobby Molloy left politics and the country in a better state than he found it, and for that, those of us who knew him ever so slightly were all the better for it. God bless.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
In deciding last week to scrap its support for water charges, and possibly unbeknownst even to itself, Fianna Fail took an important philosophical decision. The party decided to press its collective nose against that window Dev had installed to look into the soul of the Irish people, and adopt yet another position on water.
This is Fianna Fail’s fourth position on water charges. In government, the party went from being opposed to them, to agreeing to bring them as part of the Troika deal. It then went to that old reliable default of Irish politics from abortion to neutrality to Seanad reform of being in favour of something in theory but wobbly on actual practice. It now says it believes water should be funded from general taxation, the position it held before the Troika strong-armed the party into actually reading some spreadsheets.
What’s particularly interesting is Fianna Fail’s realisation that the water charge is a fine example of how transparency not only doesn’t work in Ireland, but actually undermines confidence in the political system. The Irish people have always paid for water. Our water system isn’t run by some sort of vocation of volunteer hydrological engineer nuns maintaining the nation’s water supply as a homage to God in his highest. It’s run by people who have to be paid, and that takes taxes.
Water charges attempted to show the public that this stuff costs money, and, through metering, put an actual value on it, showing Sean Citizen how much it really cost.
Sean Citizen didn’t like that, and so Fianna Fail have decided to go back to the old smoke and mirrors approach, pretending that the money we used to spend on water from general taxation was just let sit in a bucket marked water services, and not spent on some other public service.
We all know what happens next. The money will still have to be found, and so will be by stealth. A fiddle of PAYE allowances here, a moving of tax thresholds there. Sean Citizen will still pay, but he’ll be too distracted by Fianna Fail moving their egg cups around the table to hide where they’ve hidden their tax rise pea. He’ll walk away, his wallet lightened by the state, thinking he showed the government a thing or two. As a banner on the water protest last weekend said “Pay water taxes? We will, yeah!” Yeah. You will.
Funnily enough, I don’t blame Fianna Fail for deciding to go this route. It must surely be occurring to them that this whole transparency lark over the last few years, from water charges to public inquiries is in reality making us, as a country, less happy. From the Beef Tribunal forward, through the Golden Circle and the industrial schools and the planning tribunals you would think that by shining the sunlight into dark corners we would at least see a path to being a better country.
But ask Sean Citizen about political or Garda corruption, or waste of public funds, and he’ll tell you it is worse than it’s ever been, and believe it too. Well, it must be, it’s on the news.
That’s the irony: transparency has led to a better country. Children are better protected. Politics is cleaner. The Gardai are more accountable. But the public don’t believe it and yet if you ask them in detail they won’t be able to tell you why.
Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown’s focus group advisor made the point in her excellent book “Talking to a brick wall”, about how by nearly every statistical analysis the NHS under the Blair and Brown governments was better than before, yet the public just would not accept it. Under questioning, members of the public would recount their own favourable experiences with the NHS, and then dismiss it as a fluke.
It’s the same here: if the Gardai suddenly arrested a group of county councillors for corruption, what would be the default public position? “Look, we’re actually cracking down on corruption?” or “See, they’re all at it! I told you!”
It’s not unique to Ireland: there are still people who think Barack Obama either is trying or has succeeded in turning the United States into a Muslim socialist dictatorship. He isn’t and hasn’t, but why let that minor detail get in the way of voting for a world class spoofer next November?
Are Fianna Fail just recognising the reality in our post-factual political environment? Stop being honest with the voters, because they won’t believe you even when you tell them the truth and it makes them unhappy?
Water has to be paid for, and that means you have a choice. You can go the Venezuela route of never wanting to be unpopular and ending up with no toilet paper in the supermarkets. Or you can do Government-On-The-Sly, secretly slipping taxes from people’s pockets when they’re not looking.
To their credit, Fianna Fail realise that the country still needs to be run. The fact that their taxation policy comes from the Victorian street urchin Oliver Twist Book of Revenue Raising may well just be something we have to put up with. The state may indeed have to pick a pocket or two.
Posted by Jason O on Sep 10, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 29th August 2016.
You would have to travel far to find a people with the capacity to comfortably hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time as much as we as a people have.
All this week, in the professional media, on social media, one would easily come away with the impression that the Irish people are absolutely committed to the idea that building more housing is a vital let-nothing-stop-us national priority. Stories of students struggling to find housing, and then being clobbered with high rents, or of homeless people in hotels, it’s all there. The Irish people want more housing built. Fact.
Yet there are more votes mobilised by stopping specific housing proposals than by supporting them. Just look at the leaflets one gets from county councillors, where more often than not, they are bragging about how they got an “inappropriate” development stopped. There’s always a reason, and it’s always worded the same way: “Of course we all support more housing, but the traffic/parking/heritage of this particular part of my ward means that this proposal is not right for the area.”
Invariably, there are hundreds of locals who will have lobbied the councillor. How many people without homes will have lobbied him in support of the development? Aside from the developer, who gets the mark of Cain upon him for being, you know, a developer, almost nobody.
A Fianna Fail candidate told me once of being savaged at the door by a woman in a very posh part of Dun Laoghaire because her daughter couldn’t get a house “in the area”. When he pointed out that he was in favour of a proposed local development, she savaged him for that too. What did she want? Short of putting someone else out of their house and giving it to her daughter, there was no way to please her.
Housing, like Accident & Emergency, is one of those issues that we all support change in theory but would oppose the actual measures needed to deliver it. Not even for nefarious reasons, by the way. Many of the people who oppose local developments do genuinely worry about the affect it’ll have on local traffic or schools or parking or the price of the single most important asset their family owns, their home. It’s very understandable. But at its heart it calls the bluff on the idea that providing housing is an absolute priority of us as a society. It isn’t. It’s actually a “Yeah, let’s have more housing as long as it doesn’t upset other things we value more” priority.
As long as we allow planning decisions to be decided effectively by councillors elected in geographically-based wards, we will struggle to make the planning decisions we need, because there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of the system. The councillors are elected by people who live in the ward, have homes, and so don’t see the need for radical change. The people who don’t have homes, who might vote for pro-building candidates, don’t live for the most part in the area where the planning is proposed and so have no votes.
That’s assuming, by the way, that there is even a pro-building candidate on the ballot paper. Given the local government scandals of the old days, of brown envelopes and section four motions, almost any councillor who supports development is immediately accused by someone of being on the take. You end in a surreal position where conservative “pull the ladder up behind you” and so-called left wing pro-housing councillors terrified of anything with “developer” on it campaign against the same developments. If you want votes, it’s the safest thing to do.
It’s yet another reason why directly-elected mayors would be such a good idea. The mayor would be elected by the county-at-large, and so those who regard housing as an absolute priority would be an important body of voters whose votes would at least matter county-wide. A mayor coming to an end of their term, seeking re-election, would know that the number of homes they built would be a key issue for which they would be held accountable, especially in debates with other mayoral candidates. Finally, there would be a person on a ballot paper every five years whom you could say “See him? He’s the guy who is supposed to deliver on this. Let’s fire him.”
Not someone elected by the people of Some-Other-Parish South Central, and appointed housing minister by his crony the Taoiseach, but instead hired and fired by the people most affected by his housing decisions.
Of course, that all sounds a bit too much like taking responsibility. We could always just stick an actionable right to housing into the constitution and let the Supreme Court decide national planning and housing budgets, leaning over maps in their wigs dropping high-rise blocks of flats into areas like a giant game of judicial Monopoly. Curiously enough, I could see that working, as it would sit very comfortable with the national sport of blaming those terrible people up in “the castle in Dublin”.
I could see a whole generation of professional fist-shaking Irish politicians breathing a sigh of relief at having yet another responsibility taken off them, and replaced with decades of manufactured indignation about how undemocratic it all is and how vital political reform is. Nice work if you can get it.
Posted by Jason O on Aug 23, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on Monday 15th August 2016.
You can’t blame Fianna Fail for their pledge to increase the state pension by a fiver. More than anything else, Fianna Fail exists to win elections, and you go where you think the votes are, and pensioners vote. The question as to whether pensioners actually need another €5 a week is an entirely different issue. Ask Fianna Fail and you’ll get Standard Answer No.1 in the Big Book of Automatic Political Responses: “Haven’t they worked so hard, our old people? Aren’t they entitled to dignity in the winter of their years, etc?” Politically, it’s untouchable. Grade A political gold.
But ask another question: is the €150 million the increase will cost the best use of an extra €150 million we just happen to have down the back of the National Fiscal Sofa? Could it be put to better use on a more socially just cause? Because let’s be honest: there are undoubtedly pensioners struggling to get by. No question. But there are also pensioners who paid off their mortgages years ago, have their medical cards and bus passes and will always thank you for an extra fiver but, (insert incoming political taboo warning here) don’t actually need it. Even if you wanted to just target pensioners who actually are struggling, by giving them a supplement payment, that would be better and simply fairer, targeting finite resources towards those in need.
We’re not dopes. This is simply Fianna Fail bending the knee and paying tribute to the motherlode of dependable actual voters. They’re not the first, and they won’t be the last either.
It also raises the question about how another significant group of voters gets the opposition of the “haven’t they worked so hard?” treatment. Our young people. Young entrants into teaching or nursing got shafted by their own unions in order to protect older, better paid members. Social welfare restrictions were put on young people when wealthy pensioners were getting free medical cards thrown at them. Young people are an easy target because politicians believe that they just don’t vote in reliable enough numbers to matter, or in a significant way that might affect them. Remember the pensioners protesting over the over 70s medical card? They knew what their issue was, and which party’s candidates were to blame. And they voted. The trifecta of political terror. Young people, on the other hand, sure who knows if they even vote, and whether it’s over polar bears or the gays or whatever.
You can’t blame politicians. If young voters don’t take themselves or their own issues seriously, why should politicians? Democracy gives us all a vote, currency that politicians hunger for. But you have to be willing to spend yours wisely to get the best value for it.
Here’s a group of voters that not only has a unifying economic interest, but has the demographic heft, if it chose to use it, to actually get things. Imagine a properly organised Young People’s Party, for the under 30s, which actually dared say “The pensioners have gotten enough. It’s our turn now.”
That’s not to say that all young people think the same politically. Of course they don’t. But this is a section of society that has the most job insecurity, highest unemployment, greatest difficulty affording putting a roof over its head assuming it can even find a roof to pay for. There’s certainly enough there for a platform that a lot of young voters could look at and say “these guys are talking about me”. But where is their political voice? The Alphabet Left parties and Labour have always tried to set themselves up as the natural voices for young people but even they will put pensioners interests first because they too need the votes.
Just ask one of them, live in front of a microphone, will they put the interests of young people ahead of that of pensioners. They’ll give you some guff about intergenerational solidarity and how both should be priorities.
But that always, always results in the pensioners getting to the head of the queue. This isn’t about creating an anti-pensioners party: but it is about pointing out that all the other parties put pensioners first every time and that is not in the interest of the under 30s.
The biggest favour a young people’s party would do for all of us would be to force politicians to admit that politics is about the distribution of finite resources, and that no, everybody can’t be sorted from the same pot. As Brexit showed in the UK, the division between young and old is becoming a potential seismic fault in politics, and you can’t blame young people for wanting to stand up for their interests which are often different from those of their parents. The rising cost to young taxpayers of an aging and longer living population is going to contribute to that division. The truly radical departure of a young people’s party, and its greatest challenge, would be to resist the urge hardwired into every Irish politician to pander for every vote equally.
Of course, this all hinges on young people actually getting organised and doing all those boring things that you need to get candidates on ballot papers and then to win votes and seats. Have young people been pushed economically far enough to be willing to do something about it? That’s the question.
Posted by Jason O on Aug 10, 2016 in Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 1st August 2016.
If you were a property developer and you found yourself in prison, in the last ten years or so, you would be forgiven for telling other inmates that you were instead an axe murderer or maybe a drug dealer, as there seems to be less social stigma attached to the latter two occupations. People forget, and I say this declaring myself as someone who was raised and still works in the construction industry, that developers created thousands of well-paid jobs and record numbers of dwellings that actually provided homes for people. Yes, they did this to make a profit, in some cases vast profits. But guess what? That’s their job. But it underlines why the strategy of successive governments to rely on the private sector to meet our national housing needs is essentially flawed.
I bring this up in the context of the ongoing debate as to how we house our people. Let’s be clear: housing, the right to shelter, to a home, is just that, a right. I’m not a great believer in socio-economic rights being enshrined in law as I don’t want unelected judges writing the budget, but housing is different. An orderly society cannot exist without adequate housing for its entire people.
The problem for us is that the private sector and the public need are both focussing on different things. Builders will try to sell houses at the highest price possible, to make a profit, and to berate them for wanting to do that is ridiculous, any more than it is to berate public sector unions for trying to get the highest level of pay for the lowest level of work from their members. Again, that’s their job.
We get angry with the private construction industry for not paying attention to social goals which are not its problem. The CIF didn’t run for election, the government did, and with that we have to recognise that the demand for affordable housing is a different thing from what the private sector is pursuing.
That’s not to say, by the way, that the state can’t sit down with a builder and pay them direct to build publicly owned housing. That’s how we’ve done it in the past. But that’s the state taking direct control of housing policy as opposed to just hoping that what the private sector builds will meet our needs.
There are two residential property seeking groups in the country. The first see housing as a home but also possibly as an investment. It can be a family home but it can also be a holiday home or a flat rented out with an eye to post-retirement income. The issue with that group is that it tends to have relatively easy access to funding and so can outspend the second group in the market, the people who just want a home. Indeed, many in that second group would be happy to rent long-term if they had some sort of continental-style tenancy security.
That second group struggles to access funding and, let’s be honest, shouldn’t really even be in competition with the first group. Instead, we should have a separate housing market for them, shielded from the influx of distorting funds driving up prices. But how?
It’s time for the state to go into the rental business. Isn’t it already, you ask? Yes, it is. For the class with the lowest income, where it provides effective ghettoization and where public housing can be dismissed as being for “those people”. A genuinely ambitious government would go much further.
First, it would set up a national rental company, a semi-state body which will probably become the single largest residential landlord in the country. Such a company could then acquire or build a large volume of decent quality housing, which it could then offer to anyone who wishes it at a fixed percentage of their income.
Initially, the middle class will turn their noses up at this. Even if it buys housing in the proverbial “nice” areas the middle class will still opt out because they don’t know who they’ll be living beside. That’s always being the stigma with social housing. Indeed, many a private tenant in a totally private apartment block will tell you of the shoulder-shrugging response of property management companies to anti-social behaviour from other tenants.
That’s the second part of the deal: each building should have a 24/7 live-in supervisor with the power, through a pre-signed social contract every tenant would sign, to summon a couple of permanently on-call Polish or Lithuanian security consultants to assist in the removal of those anti-social tenants who refuse fair warning. Yes, there’d be war and calls to Joe and talk of constitutional rights and all the rest, but after a few high-profile enforcements and recognition that you can get decent affordable housing and neighbours of all classes and creeds who respect each other, you will catch the eye of the middle class. It’ll be the ALDIisation of public housing.
Then, as with everything in Ireland, once the middle class start demanding it, it’s a whole different ball game.
The private sector can still carry on meeting the housing needs of those who can afford it, but this way we end up with a huge professional landlord setting a continental standard for rental properties for those who just want somewhere to live. That’s not an unreasonable thing to ask for.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Picture the scene: the new National Assembly of Ireland-stroke-Dail Eireann meets for the first time, gathering to be addressed by President Kenny and King Charles III. The new national anthem, Two Peoples, One Country, written by Bono, is sung awkwardly by the assembled group, all reading from hymn sheets. In the Dail chamber, the new flag of the country, a South African style pointing to the future arrow affair made up of green, white, orange, blue and red is put into place alongside the tricolour and (at the insistence of unionists) the UK flag. Both heads of state deliver part of their speeches in English, Irish and Ulster Scots, the three official languages. In the United Nations, a new country name is slotted into place: the Federal Union of Ireland. In Dublin, civil servants correct official documents to reflect the fact that many of the former unionist politicians were bought off with various titles, and we are now a country with Sirs and Lords in official life. To wrap up the day in the traditional manner, the Canadian Ambassador punches someone.
It’s not unreasonable to suspect that there is something in the above paragraph that will get up the nose of either unionists or nationalists. But it also raises the fact that when the issue of a united Ireland is raised publicly, as it was last week by the Taoiseach, its’ proponents have usually given little thought to the actual details.
There’s an almost Trump-like approach to the issue, where questions are met with “It’ll be great!” followed by louder singing of rebel songs. Is there a single leader of nationalist Ireland who would be willing to list out, in detail, the actual things that we as a country would have to concede to unionists in return for their widespread consent?
As it happens, even the idea of seeking widespread consent from unionists is controversial, with too many nationalists believing in the Putin/Erdogan idea that 50.1% of the vote gives you a right to ride absolutely roughshod over the other 49.9%. We know this is a dumb idea because we’ve seen it ourselves in the north of Ireland from 1922 to the Good Friday Agreement, and how it not only doesn’t work but actually makes things worse.
The truth is that even if there is a hair-splitting majority of voters in Northern Ireland in favour of a united Ireland, unionists will still have a blocking veto on what the new Ireland will look like. They’ll have demands, and if we are to convince a million unionists that this is their country too, we’re going to have to concede big.
Just recall the indignation that something as minor (yes, it is) as re-joining the Commonwealth attracts. That’s at the very bottom of concessions. Wait until we need a new national anthem, flag, name, or have to recognise in a new constitution how important the British sovereign is to a section of, yes, our people. Wait until we find the DUP demanding that the Northern Assembly has a veto over the removal of the 8th amendment.
Then there is the honours system. How do we feel about having a Lord as Taoiseach-stroke-Prime Minister of Ireland? What about the compulsory teaching of Irish in the north and Ulster Scots to our children in our schools, a language which, let’s be polite, most of the south doesn’t even accept is a language as much as the soundtrack to an episode of Rab C Nesbitt.
All this before we get into the meat and potatoes of how we fund this. If I have learnt one thing in the last ten years of Irish politics, it’s that the Irish people are plain lying when they say they are willing to pay extra taxes for a noble cause.
An Irish government would be wise to test that support in the one place where the Irish always tell the truth not to pollsters or their politicians but to themselves: their wallets. A government that announced a new unity levy on VAT and PAYE to build up a ring-fenced reserve to pay for a future reconnected Northern Ireland in advance of a referendum on reunification would certainly put every nationalist party in a bind. It’s one thing to belt them out at the top of one’s lungs at closing time, but quite another thing to happily put one’s hand in one’s pocket for the privilege. It’ll be fun watching the anti-tax parties (i.e. all of them) dance a jig around the issue. They can hardly claim double taxation on this one, although I’ve no doubt that some will suggest that the EU, US or even the Brits should and will somehow pay for it all.
Perhaps we It could even put that proposal to the people in a pre-unity referendum, a straight forward “put your money where your mouth is, Irish” to the voters.
Would it pass? Maybe it would. Perhaps I’m just too cynical to see the patriotic passion that a possible united nation once again means to so many. But given they’re not so hot on paying for clean water coming out of their own taps, forgive me if I remain sceptical about voters in the republic taxing themselves extra to guarantee loyalists the NHS.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 18th July 2016.
Writing on social media last week about the Nice attack, the conservative commentator John McGuirk remarked that “at some point soon, people are going to say “you know, we tried the nice way. We tried tolerance. We tried being understanding. Maybe it’s time to give the crazy guy a shot at it.”
It’s hard to dispute the logic of his argument, given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months. From Trump to Brexit, we are witnessing what some are calling “post-truth” politics but what I prefer to term The Right To One’s Own Facts. The most disturbing aspect of the Brexit debate for me was the willingness of voters particularly but not exclusively on the leave side to casually dismiss facts which did not fit with their worldview.
But what should really alarm us is that there now seems to be substantial numbers of voters who choose to vote recklessly on the basis that “sure, it can’t get any worse, can it?” There are literally millions of people voting for Trumps, Farages and Erdogans. It can always get worse.
In 1979 the trades unions brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government because they thought he was too right-wing. Think they were still applauding themselves for that act after ten years of Mrs Thatcher? Reckless voters keep thinking that they can’t break the system, even when they pretend they want to.
But they do want to break it, some say. Why shouldn’t they? They’re disengaged. Except they’re not. They are completely engaged by other taxpayers through the state. It often provides their dole, their healthcare, their housing, their kids’ education, all funded by the taxes of voters whom they themselves seem to hold in contempt for being “an elite”.
The welfare state isn’t some form of natural fiscal phenomenon. It’s a decision by voters collectively to provide what is, in many instances, a form of nationalised charity. Sure, get insulted all you want at that definition, and talk about entitlements and rights, but bear in mind that whilst all of us, in every class, cannot avoid paying some tax, even if it is just VAT, some pay far more into the pot than they draw out, and others vice versa. You know where the poor are disengaged properly? Venezuela. When you can’t even find toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Disengagement? That’s abandonment by the state, and it isn’t happening here.
The other awkward reality about reckless voters is their contribution to the rise of the hard anti-immigrant right in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What do these countries all have in common? How about, in one study after another, they collectively have the highest standards of living as nations in the world, which actually means in human history. So what’s their gripe? How disengaged are they? Is their broadband speed letting them down? Not getting enough time to play Pokemon?
What unifies Trump voters, Brexit voters, far right and far left voters? For some it is simple racism. We seem to believe that racism is no longer possible, but is merely a symptom of some other underlying cause. But guess what? Some people just don’t like people who are a different colour or creed. It doesn’t matter why, we just have to ignore them because their opinions are irrational and listening to them about the direction of society is like listening to Jimmy Saville about child protection protocols.
But I would suggest that the racists are a minority, and the real motivating factor for many of these voters is the speed of change, and that’s a big problem. Yes, immigration transforms societies, but so does technology. The speed of transport has sped up immigration, but it has also sped up shipping times from the cheaper labour less employment rights factories of China and thus made off-shoring jobs much more viable. How do you stop that?
The Trumps and the Le Pens can stop immigration, and erect walls, both physically and tariff. But they can only alter the speed of change by actually withdrawing their respective countries from the globalized economy, which has all sorts of consequences from labour shortages to the price of food in the shops.
For me, the greatest reason why we should ignore reckless voters is their belief that complexity can be removed. That “take back control” or “just send them all home” is an actual solution. This is using a match to see if there is any petrol left in the drum stuff, and it must be opposed.
Of course, all that assumes that a majority of voters will vote in a non-reckless way, and that, in the age of Trump, is a hell of an assumption to make. Just look at the Erdogan of Turkey.
In 1932, in Germany, 52% of voters voted for either the Nazi party or the Communist party. Many of those same voters would have to wait for 17 years for another free election, and only after their country lay literally in ruins and under occupation.
It is very possible for voters in a democracy to vote to abolish themselves. Reckless voters have a right to be heard. But they don’t have a right to grab control of the wheel of the bus and take us all down with them. Nor are we obliged to let them.
So, if we were to reset the European Union, what would it look like?
We, the peoples of the sovereign nations of Europe, and members of the European Union, declare the following:
That we recognize, in the ballots of the people of the United Kingdom in their referendum on the European question, that the future of the European Union must be debated.
We also recognize that in casting their ballots they raised questions about European integration which have been raised with equal concern and passion by other peoples in other member states of the union.
Accepting these facts to be true, the European Council, being the representatives of the peoples and national parliaments of the nations of the EU, and its highest body, declares the following to be the basic laws of the policy of the European Union:
The Council recognizes that the European Union is a community of sovereign democratic nations, and that those nations, at the behest of their people, are the primary source of democratic legitimacy of the union. Some of those nations may wish to integrate to different degrees from others. The EU will respect the sovereign right of each nation to determine its own level of integration, or to withhold participation.
The Council recognizes that no new country may join the European Union without the consent of the national parliaments of all existing member states.
The Council accepts that whilst some member states may wish to cooperate on defence issues, no member state or its armed or security forces shall be obliged to participate without the consent of that nation’s national parliament. The European Union shall not have the power to introduce conscription.
The Council believes that the European Court of Justice exists to interpret the laws of the union as determined by the member states. Therefore, voting by a majority of both member states and population, the Council may overturn any ruling of the European Court of Justice.
The Council also believes that the national parliaments are the indispensable voice of the people of the member states, and so a majority of national parliaments representing a majority of the population of the EU may vote to suspend or abolish any existing EU directive or regulation, or block any proposed one.
The Council acknowledges the unique role of the European Parliament, and so grants to it the right to initiate legislation which may only become law if passed by the European Council and not blocked by the national parliaments as per the preceding clause.
The Council concedes the question of the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission. It therefore announces that the President of the European Commission shall be elected by the people of the European Union on the same days as the European Parliament elections. A method of nomination of candidates may be decided by a majority of the national parliaments.
The Council affirms the right of any European Union citizen to renounce their EU citizenship, and all the treaty rights attached to it.
Finally, the Council proclaims that no member state shall be forced to accept migrants without its consent.
We believe that this declaration, which we commit to transcribing into a binding treaty, shall recognize the modern aspirations of Europeans and the appropriate balance between the union and the sovereign member states.