Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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20 Years Later: Ireland 2037.

News Future logoPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

For the citizens of the Federal Union of Ireland, looking back from their vantage point of the year 2037, 2017 would turn out to be one of those years when a nation’s destiny pivots, even if it isn’t realized at the time.

The road to Irish unification began that year, as unionism went from being the dominant ideology of Northern Ireland to merely one option on the table. The triggering of Britain’s exit from the European Union, and the realisation that the interests of Northern Ireland barely registered if at all in high places in England was another key moment.

But it wasn’t just unionists who were forced to confront new realities. If unionists were left open mouthed at England’s lack of interest in them, nationalists were forced to confront the intellectual emptiness of Irish unification, and the fact that almost no thought had been given to what a united Ireland would look like. The old pub closing time declarations of running a tricolour up over Stormont and job done were rapidly revealed to be absolutely worthless. Indeed, once nationalists in both the north and the south grasped that unity meant Irishness suddenly meaning one in five Irish being monarchists with totally different view of the old enemy, it triggered as big a crisis in nationalist political circles in both Dublin and Belfast.

The hard reality of Brexit, and the refusal of English voters to regard subsidising Northern Ireland as being their problem led to unionists looking south at a country that, unlike their English cousins, actually was interested in them.

The negotiations were started by proxies of proxies, people who had no public association with either side, but had access to major players in Dublin and Belfast. The draft papers that emerged on the desks of the taoiseach and the first minister by circuitous route, caused a bigger panic in Dublin than Belfast, in that they weren’t a German style reintegration of the country but a South African style blueprint for a new one, with a new name, flag, anthem, constitution, official language, and a constitutional guarantee as to what proportion of the national budget would be given to the northern assembly.

It was during the negotiations that Dublin realised the fundamental weakness in its argument. That it really wanted a united Ireland, whereas Belfast could only deliver unionism to an all bells and whistles deal, and both sides knew it. As Trumpism had proven, even economic hardship can be overwhelmed by a fear of “them”.

The talks collapsed a number of times, but history now shows that this had been a deliberate tactic of the new young  Taoiseach who recognised that the longer it took, the more time the Irish people would have to get used to the idea that what was on offer was a new and different country.

Even after the new agreement was passed on both sides of the border the new country faced challenges. Within ten years, the rapidly escalating automation of the global economy delivered to Ireland the challenge of shrinking labour demand just as the country crashed through the six million population barrier.

As it happened, Ireland turned out to be the perfect size for the dynamic innovation needed for a country to compete in the age of the robot. The social welfare system was replaced with a basic income, and Europe, having defeated the far right challenge that had overwhelmed both the US and the UK, recognised that tax harmonisation and access to its single market were the two weapons vital to funding that new system.

The Ireland of 2037, presided over by President The Lord Paisley, remains one of the richest most free nations in the world, its population swelling with liberal refugees from the US and England. There are tensions with England, as EU countries refuse to extradite suspects who may be executed, and England is one of the more casual nations with the noose these days, as Tony Blair nearly discovered before Irish diplomats smuggled him out of the UK and to asylum in Ireland.

In the Phoenix Park the finishing touches are being put on the memorial to the 237 Irish volunteers who served and died in the joint Scottish-Irish regiment of the European Defence Force liberating Poland and the Baltics from the Russians. Scotland’s entry into the EU coincided with the signing of the Edinburgh treaty between Scotland and Ireland, much to the delight of the Ulster Party in the Dail/National Assembly, both countries agreeing to fund a joint air and sea force to patrol their waters and airspace. The first shared ship, the William Wallace, is based in Cork. The Tom Crean will be based in Aberdeen.

Robots are everywhere, from the permanent police drones that replaced small police stations, solar powered and hovering silently, their infrared cameras seeing all, to the automated vehicles that make up 90% of the vehicles on the road.

What few predicted was the new creative age the robots would unleash. Ireland is now awash with poets, artists, musicians, performers, writers, people who thought they had been left on the economic scrapheap but instead found themselves liberated. Ireland’s most recent Oscar winner, for best supporting actor, had been a Dublin Bus driver five years previously.

 
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Memo to the new Taoiseach.

Posted by Jason O on Apr 27, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition

Some years ago, I had to collect a relative from Dublin airport. The flight had been delayed, and it was quite late, and as I stood in arrivals I noticed a former Taoiseach standing in the small waiting crowd. Watching him for a while, it was striking that he got none of the double-taking that even well-known politicians get. He’d been the most powerful man in the country, and now was hardly noticed. 

He hadn’t been a bad Taoiseach. It felt like he’d just, for the most part, physically been there. Like Enda.

Whilst it’s fair to say that Enda Kenny had achievements as Taoiseach, overall, as he prepares to leave office, you can’t help feeling that the phrase “squandered opportunities” will be the one that hangs most around the Kenny era. Here was a man whose government came to power with the greatest majority ever, and with a momentum in the country willing to toss aside the old ways of doing politics. He leaves office with the political system, in terms of where actual decision making power lies, in almost the exact shape that he found it.

His successor, whomever it is, needs to ponder that. The refusal to radically change the system didn’t help Enda in the long run. He’s not leaving office of his own volition, but just one step ahead of a political posse.

The next Taoiseach has to decide whether that is what he wants to be too? Another placeholder holding on by his fingernails until he too gets turfed out? Or a man with a body of work that will be his legacy. If he’s the latter, he needs to get cracking from day one.

I have, much to your surprise, dear reader, I’m sure, a few suggestions for our new Taoiseach.

First, decide in your head that less is more. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, advised that rather than overpromise, politicians should under-promise and over-deliver, and not make a big hullabaloo about a policy until it is actually up and running. Don’t make vague and unmeasurable promises about “tackling” the housing crisis and A&E. Decide what you can actually do, do it, then declare it.

There are a number of things you can do quite easily. One, for example, involves a simple clear statement as Taoiseach stating that anyone who paid their water charges will get their money back. These are your heartland, and it’s time they got some respect for obeying the law you passed.

Secondly, explain in a straightforward way, face to camera, why the national children’s hospital has to be built in a congested urban area and not on the M50: there may be very good reasons, but no one in government seems capable of communicating them so far.

Reconsider the whole free GP visits for all proposal. It looks great on paper, but all it will really do is create waiting lists to see GPs. Like it or not, charging for GPs forces patients to perform their own triage. However, do recognise that the squeezed middle without medical cards are paying for everything: give them vouchers for a few free GP visits a year. It eases the burden without flooding GP surgeries.

Next, recognise that voter education, or rather, the lack of it, is the issue that is poisoning politics across the west and could easily do so here. Just look at the number of people on Obamacare who voted to abolish Obamacare and are now shocked to be losing their Obamacare. Government, the matching of finite taxes to infinite public service demand, is going to more and more require the public understanding why choices are being made. As it happens, the last Dail has done a lot of work on this. There is a proposed electoral commission, and minister Eoghan Murphy’s Tax Transparency bill is sitting in the bowels of the Oireachtas somewhere. Let these both be fast-tracked through as the beginning of an active campaign to educate voters as to why decisions are made.

Then move onto making the opposition work for their salaries. For years we’ve been promised an Oireachtas Budget Office that would take opposition proposals through the ringers and make sure the sums were right. Not only should you set it up, you should task it to automatically cost every opposition spending proposal. The opposition work for the taxpayers too: we’re entitled to value off them as well.

While you’re at it, push through elected mayors and that Seanad reform bill. A Seanad elected on a non-geographical basis will focus on national policy, as government has to. And elected mayors are the antidote to reckless opposition: let a load of Alphabet Left and Sinn Fein mayors have to legally choose between increased property taxes and local public services. Make them make decisions.

Finally, invite every EU member state with a population of less than 6m, all twelve of them, to a Summit of the Small. We’re forever complaining when Germany, France and the big six have their summits. Let’s have ours, and send out a clear message that we will defend the free-movement free-trade single market Europe and the sovereignty of small nations.

From day one as Taoiseach, you have a choice. You can just physically be Taoiseach, or you can set out to change the direction of society.

No prizes for guessing which one gets remembered.

 
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Do we need a second national police force?

Posted by Jason O on Apr 3, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

GardaPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

Here’s a quiz to get your brain cogs whirring this morning. Aside from being (or having been) semi-state bodies, what do Aer Lingus, Eircom, Dublin Bus, RTE and the National Car Test all have in common? The answer is that all improved their services after encountering direct competition and the idea that their performance might actually affect their existence.

This occurred to me whilst watching last week’s formal opening of the Annual Shall We Sack The Garda Commissioner festival. We’re all familiar with the format. Something involving the guards explodes into the public consciousness, and we do the traditional Irish thing of either blaming The System as if we have no control over it, or we point to the current incumbent and make them Baddie of the Week.

It’ll rumble on a bit, and then we might get the old “personal health/family reasons” letter, she heads off with her pension, the next one steps up, and we all agree to meet around this cauldron same time next year to kick it off again. We should probably make Garda scandal day a bank holiday. At least that way we’d all get a weekend out of it.

At its heart is an issue about the Garda Siochana. Now, before I kick off, let me say that for various professional and personal reasons I’ve had a not unreasonable amount of dealings with the Gardai. I’ve got to be honest: I found them professional, courteous and diligent. But one thing that struck me in all my dealings with them is that really good Gardai, and there are really good Gardai, are good despite their organisation, not because of it.

I’ve had encounters with young guards who are incredibly frustrated by the fact that their own technology, their personal phones and laptops, are vastly superior to the equipment they are supposed to use.  I’ve seen them handwriting reams of statements which then have to be typed up. I’ve participated in a line-up where the victim was expected to enter the room, walk up to the alleged person who’d beat seven bells out of them earlier that day, and place his hand on the suspects’ shoulder.

I wasn’t the suspect, just in case you’re wondering.

We have a force that is physically courageous and clean by international standards. When I say that, people snort, but it’s true. We don’t have a culture of street cops shaking us down for cash, which is common enough in some countries: I know of one person who was robbed on the street by police offers in St Petersburg. But it is also a force that is not fit for 21st century purpose, and we have to ask ourselves why.

In the old Tom & Jerry cartoons of the 1940s, and in the old “Batman” TV show in the 1960s, it was taken as read that large numbers of police in Boston, Chicago and New York were actual Irish immigrants or of Irish descent. Why was that? Was it because as a people we were drawn to law and order? If you knew us as a people, you’d think that highly unlikely. No, the Irish joined the police because it was a good pensionable job. It offered security, and that is a culture which permeates most Irish public bodies. The terms and conditions of the body’s employees are often, unofficially, the primary concern of the organisation.

As I mentioned earlier, this culture has been forced to change when public bodies actually start to lose business to competition, and questions about their actual necessity start to get asked. That forced Dublin Bus to start providing a dedicated service to Dublin airport, or Eircom and Aer Lingus to lower their prices.

Almost uniquely, the Garda Siochana have, by the nature of its mission, being exempt from those same pressures, and it shows. It’s not that the force hasn’t changed or improved, but not at the same noticeable pace as the rest of the semi-state sector. Look at the forces record on dealing with white collar crime and especially political corruption. Or try and report a case of internet fraud to a Garda station (which Paypal require you to do in such cases) and watch the blank face on an older Garda. Again, I have a relative who was lectured by a desk sergeant about staying away from “that internet thing”. Is that official Garda policy in a country with notions about being the digital hub of Europe?

The Garda need competition, and here’s how we do it. We outsource those areas where the Gardai are failing, like political corruption, white collar and internet crime. Let’s put it out to tender, for a fixed contract period, and see if we can get some large US or UK private security or law firm interested. The successful applicant will have the same Garda powers and legal restraints in those areas, and be paid a bonus on conviction in an Irish court. They’ll be answerable to GSOC.

What do we have to lose? The Gardai are not doing much in those areas anyway, so any increase in activity is to the good, and might force the Gardai to modernise out of sheer fear of that greatest of all Irish motivators, the fear of being shown up.

And here’s the beauty: if it doesn’t work, we can sack all of them.

 

 
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Enda Kenny proposes votes for the Unborn.

Posted by Jason O on Apr 1, 2017 in Irish Politics, Not quite serious.

An-Taoiseach-Enda-KennyEnda Kenny, the Taoiseach, has proposed that a means be devised of ensuring that the voice of the unborn be recognised in general elections. Speaking at a Fine Gael constituency fundraiser in Dublin Bay East, the FG leader surprised party members by announcing that he had instructed the attorney general to determine if such an approach was constitutional.

“Given that we recognise the unborn as a legal entity in the 8th amendment, it begs the question: why don’t they have full parliamentary representation alongside their fellow citizens? If we calculate from the passing of the amendment in 1983, we can put a reasonable estimate on the number of aborted unborn who, had they been born, would now be voters. I’m proposing that we can make a reasonable assumption that they would vote in their own self interest, and would therefore give a first preference vote to pro-life candidates. Therefore I propose that at the next election we add those first preferences to the vote totals of openly pro-life candidates.”

Sinn Fein Cllr April Amadan (Dublin Bay East) has called on the proposal to be amended to extend the franchise to the millions who died in the Famine, and whose descendants would “almost certainly vote Sinn Fein”.

 
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Memo to the new Taoiseach.

Posted by Jason O on Mar 18, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

An-Taoiseach-Enda-Kenny3Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

Some years ago, I had to collect a relative from Dublin airport. The flight had been delayed, and it was quite late, and as I stood in arrivals I noticed a former Taoiseach standing in the small waiting crowd. Watching him for a while, it was striking that he got none of the double-taking that even well-known politicians get. He’d been the most powerful man in the country, and now was hardly noticed. 

He hadn’t been a bad Taoiseach. It felt like he’d just, for the most part, physically been there. Like Enda.

Whilst it’s fair to say that Enda Kenny had achievements as Taoiseach, overall, as he prepares to leave office, you can’t help feeling that the phrase “squandered opportunities” will be the one that hangs most around the Kenny era. Here was a man whose government came to power with the greatest majority ever, and with a momentum in the country willing to toss aside the old ways of doing politics. He leaves office with the political system, in terms of where actual decision making power lies, in almost the exact shape that he found it.

His successor, whomever it is, needs to ponder that. The refusal to radically change the system didn’t help Enda in the long run. He’s not leaving office of his own volition, but just one step ahead of a political posse.

The next Taoiseach has to decide whether that is what he wants to be too? Another placeholder holding on by his fingernails until he too gets turfed out? Or a man with a body of work that will be his legacy. If he’s the latter, he needs to get cracking from day one.

I have, much to your surprise, dear reader, I’m sure, a few suggestions for our new Taoiseach.

First, decide in your head that less is more. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, advised that rather than overpromise, politicians should under-promise and over-deliver, and not make a big hullabaloo about a policy until it is actually up and running. Don’t make vague and unmeasurable promises about “tackling” the housing crisis and A&E. Decide what you can actually do, do it, then declare it.

There are a number of things you can do quite easily. One, for example, involves a simple clear statement as Taoiseach stating that anyone who paid their water charges will get their money back. These are your heartland, and it’s time they got some respect for obeying the law you passed.

Secondly, explain in a straightforward way, face to camera, why the national children’s hospital has to be built in a congested urban area and not on the M50: there may be very good reasons, but no one in government seems capable of communicating them so far.

Reconsider the whole free GP visits for all proposal. It looks great on paper, but all it will really do is create waiting lists to see GPs. Like it or not, charging for GPs forces patients to perform their own triage. However, do recognise that the squeezed middle without medical cards are paying for everything: give them vouchers for a few free GP visits a year. It eases the burden without flooding GP surgeries.

Next, recognise that voter education, or rather, the lack of it, is the issue that is poisoning politics across the west and could easily do so here. Just look at the number of people on Obamacare who voted to abolish Obamacare and are now shocked to be losing their Obamacare. Government, the matching of finite taxes to infinite public service demand, is going to more and more require the public understanding why choices are being made. As it happens, the last Dail has done a lot of work on this. There is a proposed electoral commission, and minister Eoghan Murphy’s Tax Transparency bill is sitting in the bowels of the Oireachtas somewhere. Let these both be fast-tracked through as the beginning of an active campaign to educate voters as to why decisions are made.

Then move onto making the opposition work for their salaries. For years we’ve been promised an Oireachtas Budget Office that would take opposition proposals through the ringers and make sure the sums were right. Not only should you set it up, you should task it to automatically cost every opposition spending proposal. The opposition work for the taxpayers too: we’re entitled to value off them as well.

While you’re at it, push through elected mayors and that Seanad reform bill. A Seanad elected on a non-geographical basis will focus on national policy, as government has to. And elected mayors are the antidote to reckless opposition: let a load of Alphabet Left and Sinn Fein mayors have to legally choose between increased property taxes and local public services. Make them make decisions.

Finally, invite every EU member state with a population of less than 6m, all twelve of them, to a Summit of the Small. We’re forever complaining when Germany, France and the big six have their summits. Let’s have ours, and send out a clear message that we will defend the free-movement free-trade single market Europe and the sovereignty of small nations.

From day one as Taoiseach, you have a choice. You can just physically be Taoiseach, or you can set out to change the direction of society.

No prizes for guessing which one gets remembered.

 
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Yes, but WHY do you want to be Taoiseach?

Posted by Jason O on Mar 4, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

CPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

When I was a kid in the 1980s, becoming aware of politics, Sunday morning seemed to me to be an important time. Just before the Sunday dinner the opening credits of “Weekend World” would erupt from the television. The show about British politics, presented by former Labour MP Brian Walden, was nearly always too heavy for me to watch, but I always came away with two impressions.

The first was that its theme music, the prog rock group Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride” seemed to me as a kid a bit too mischievous for a political programme theme, in that, played over scenes off that week’s political events, it made politics look very exciting indeed.

The second was that this was a serious programme for serious people. The politicians who went on it, the Denis Healeys, the Nigel Lawsons, the Roy Jenkins, seemed to be very big beasts. They had to be, because Walden conducted what we now call a “forensic interview”. A minister or opposition spokesperson had to know their brief, not because the show got a large audience but because the guests knew that their colleagues and the press gallery would all be watching, and making a bags on “Weekend World” had an impact on your reputation as a serious player.

I was reminded of the show recently watching Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar teeing up to replace Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. How would all three men handle a serious-big-picture-with- details interview on their vision for Taoiseach? One challenge for all three is the tendency of Irish politicians to see an interview not as an opportunity to test an idea or communicate an objective, but as a chore to be endured. Usually with the presentation of a bingo card of safe inoffensive guff phrases like “world class health service” and “meeting the challenges” and listing out everything as a priority. Requests for detail will be met with declarations of support for “Comprehensive reviews”. In short, they try to ride out the clock and get the hell out of there without giving away too much.

We know for certain that the current Taoiseach does struggle with detailed interviews. Not because his government doesn’t have achievements, because it does. Indeed, he has been the victim of the simple churlishness of Irish voters who are willing to blame a government for every economic setback, but rarely give them any credit for creating an environment for economic progress. But then, get a vague Taoiseach, get vague voters.  

If there is one lesson Coveney and Varadkar should heed, it’s the importance of being able to communicate a clear metric of what success looks like. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition actually did the opposite, running on a platform of opposition to many of the measures such as water charges and property taxes that they would actually be forced to implement. More importantly, they knew well before polling day that they’d have no choice given the state of the public finances.

But by 2016, the metric to measure them was what they said in 2011 and what they had lied about. What seemed like clever in 2011 to Labour nearly destroyed them as a party in 2016, with the spectacle of Labour activists cringing at the media actually using their own 2011 appearances against them.

It’s not good enough to spew guff about “tackling” the A&E or housing crisis. It’s about either man being able to stand alone in a room with a blank flip chart and a felt tip pen and write out the three or four specific objectives they will have pledged to deliver by the end of this Dail in 2021.

How long should a person reasonably have to wait in A&E before an actual doctor is treating them?

What is the reasonable percentage of gross income someone in Dublin should expect to pay in rent for a two bedroom flat?

There’s a whole raft of questions like those above, but here’s the thing. If either man looks at either of those questions and says “How the hell am I supposed to know?”, then I’d suggest they ring the other guy and tell him they’re withdrawing.  They’re two simple questions about ordinary life, and if a prospective Taoiseach can’t either see that, or doesn’t want to answer them, or simply don’t think about things like that, they’re not the man for the job.

We have had, in Enda Kenny, and I’d suggest Brian Cowen too, Taoisigh who came into the job because it was the next rung on the ladder. Is there anyone who really believes either man came back from the park having met the president and rubbed their hands thinking “Finally! A chance to do something on policy X!” Noel Browne came into office determined to do bloody war upon tuberculosis. Labour in 1992 came in and immediately launched a swathe of liberal reforms, leaving a legacy in 1997 of the single most socially liberalising government in the history of the state. Dev from 1932, cumulating in a new constitution in 1937, had a plan.  

In 1979 Ted Kennedy famously damaged his campaign for president by being unable to answer why he wanted to be president.

Simon and Leo have a question to answer: why do you want power?    

 
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Time to move the capital out of Dublin?

Posted by Jason O on Feb 2, 2017 in Irish Politics

athlonePreviously published in The Times Ireland edition.

Let’s move the capital out of Dublin. Sounds mad, right? If you’re thinking that, well, you’re in good company because my illustrious editor thought the same when I suggested the idea. But hear me out.

Being capital of a country is a prestigious thing. It means hosting parliaments, supreme courts, government buildings, the executive. It brings with it a certain degree of what could best be described as economic welly, with the salaries of members of parliament and their advisors and all their support staff and families, all on good money, being spent locally. It draws in foreign leaders, embassies, lobbyists, demonstrations, and the odd summit. All who need to be housed and fed, and quite a few not too fussy about value because someone else is picking up the tab.

In short, being a national capital is a money spinner.

But here’s the thing: Dublin, like New York, Sydney, Toronto and Johannesburg doesn’t need that sort of money, because it is big enough and economically attractive enough to lure what we really want. Foreign money. Foreign investment. And in that regard, being a capital is almost a hindrance, with many of those people associated with government using up precious space and housing in Dublin but not adding to Dublin by generating new money. Instead, they’re spending our own money which we had in the country in the first place anyway. Dublin wants value added money.

Supposing, instead, we decided to move the capital. Where? That’s up for debate, but I’d suggest building a new town somewhere in the midlands, planned, as Canberra and Brasilia were, for the purpose of being a capital city. A huge project to create a new economic hub, funded by taxpayer money we spend anyway, in a region that actually would feel the benefit from millions in new spending.

A new parliament, supreme court, Department of the Taoiseach, Aras an Uachtaran, a new airport and rail link, new schools, hospitals, embassies, all planned because we would know almost exactly who would move there.

Would it be expensive to build initially? Yes, of course. But consider again the buildings we could free up in Dublin. Indeed, if we were really ambitious, we could move most of RTE out there too, and free up that prime development land in Donnybrook. Leinster House would make a fine hotel, and it’s not like we’re proud of much that has happened in there since independence anyway. After all, the first few Dails didn’t even meet there.

Is it ambitious? Yes, it is, and not without controversy. We’d need a referendum, and it is quite possible that we’d never get it passed not because the country loves Dublin (as every All Ireland proves) but because there’d be war over what county would get it.

Then there’d be another war once the lucky county is designated and the local Down With This Sort Of Thing brigade do a Shell-to-Sea and wail that it’ll bring terrorist attacks and transsexuals or even transsexual terrorists. But it’ll allow us to kill a load of birds with one giant stone made of money. As part of the design, we can put in a state of the art refugee camp, traveller halting site, wind farm, prison, waste incinerator and (if we can get the water) maybe even a nuclear power plant, all as part of the package. No cherry picking. The county gets all this lovely spending or none, take it or leave it.  

We bang on about how much we pay our politicians and how much lobbyists are paid to influence them, so let’s make them all spend their money in a region that needs it. Same with demonstrations. If people want to march on parliament, rather than have them block up the streets of Dublin, let them go to the new capital, where they can march along streets specially designed for demonstrations and buy their cans of Coke and Twixs and sandwiches from local shops glad of the business.

We could even designate a libel-free speakers corner near parliament where you can shout your head off without fear of legal retribution. There’d be a whole stream of axe grinding head-the-balls dying to shout abusive things at passersby and inform their fellow citizens of conspiracies involving the EU and giant lizards. Some people will make the trip just for that.

Yes, it is a very radical proposition, I get that. It would take years to plan, and there is the slightest hint of decentralisation (remember that?) about it. But would it be that bad for our leaders to get away from Dublin with its centre of the universe views? True, the politicians won’t like it. It’s a bit like a political version of the Shannon Stopover, kidnapping them and making them live in Portlaoise. Still, that’ll learn ‘em.

Not convinced? Fair enough. How about we start with a pilot scheme? We could move the Seanad. Sure they’re all just a bunch of jumped up county councillors anyway.

Or we could go for an even more radical proposition. We could move the Seanad around the country like a circus, every week meeting in a different county. The locals would be glad of the business, local schoolkids could be brought down to see the majesty of parliamentary democracy in action, senators could get to wine and dine their county councillor electors, and we could lease the existing Seanad chamber out to turn into something useful.

My money is on a Starbucks.   

 
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The never-ending A&E crisis.

Posted by Jason O on Jan 28, 2017 in Irish Politics

Groundhog dayPreviously published in the The Times Ireland Edition. 

There must be, in the Department of Health, a particular well-thumbed file. Let’s call it The Groundhog Day File, given that it must be reached for, with a heavy sigh, by some senior health official every time a new health minister approaches his or her first winter.

“We must do something!” the panicking politician will cry.

“Well, we could increase the number of beds, hire and train three extra nurses for each bed to provide 24 hour coverage, hire extra support staff, hire extra doctors and build new buildings to store them all in,” the official will say, reading off the first page of the file as if they have to.

“How long will that take?”

“Oh, between five and twelve years?”

“What? Joe Duffy will string me up. I need an answer now!”

“We could probably scrape about 60 beds together? With some overtime, rejig rosters, blutack…”

The minister then slumps in his seat.

“How are we not prepared for this? This happens every bloody year! Why weren’t these plans put in place five to twelve years ago?” he asks.

The official will smile a smile that simply says “Ah, bless.”

“Because, minister, five to twelve years ago when we said this to the minister, he said he needed an answer right then. But if you were to start spending today’s money on future planning, you could avoid a minister twelve years from now having this problem.”

The minister explodes.

“What? Make decisions now so that that some fella twelve years from now gets all the credit? Screw him! Where’s that blutack?”

And that’s pretty much been the situation for as long as Simon Harris, minister for health has been actually alive. We’ve had Michael Martin, Michael Noonan, Mary Harney, Brendan Howlin, James Reilly and Leo Varadkar as minister, and the one thing that has united all has been the issue of A&E and beds, during good times and bad.

Every year we have the same story, the same individual stories of pensioners on trollies for x hours. The great Gordian Knot of Irish healthcare. The same questions by the public: why is it still a problem? And the same solution proposed by whichever party is in opposition: more resources.

Here’s the reality. Repeat it after me: There are no votes in fixing waiting lists. There are votes to be lost by fixing them.

Yes, I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the Irish people would shower with votes the minister who finally fixed a problem that had seized the popular imagination. That was debated and discussed and cursed in pubs up and down the country? That touched pretty much every family?

Nope. For some reason, modern Irish voters do not reward their politicians for solving national problems. Remember when driving tests were a saga? When you went months and months before you could get a driving test? Older readers will remember that. Then the late Seamus Brennan fixed it, and bugger all good it did for him. Mary Harney pretty much singlehandedly wiped out Dublin’s smog problem. Dublin had a smog problem? There you go. The late Jim Mitchell saved the taxpayer millions through the DIRT inquiry. Lost his seat in the following election.

The Irish electorate don’t do gratitude. So there are no votes in fixing the big problems. But there are votes to be lost. Investing now to ensure that a decade from now we have more bed capacity will cost money now, with little benefit today. But it will also mean taking money away from other spending commitments, and that becomes the story.

“More cuts from minister”. Not “Minister redirects limited resources for better long-term gain”.

There are no votes in long-term policies. That’s not unique to Ireland, it’s actually a cancer at the heart of modern western democracy, that voters want everything now. Almost every major social problem requires planning and spending of today’s taxes to avoid problems in the future. But you cannot get votes on that platform.        

I’ve mentioned in this column before that my background is in the construction industry. As a result, I’ve had an opportunity to visit sawmills and forests in Sweden. What’s interesting is that many of the forests are relatively close to the sawmills because as the original forests were cut down, the sawmills replanted them knowing that they personally may never see the benefit. In fairness, Coillte does the same here. But as a general concept in Ireland, it’s a rare beast.

There’s some part of the Irish psyche that can’t comprehend long-term, and it is hurting us. As to the solution, consider this: maybe it is time to take things like housing and healthcare out of politics altogether. Supposing if the Dail decided to appoint a non-political health minister for a fixed ten year term, to implement an agreed long-term plan and budget. The problem with that is that it would strip the opposition of the issue and all the heat and emotion that goes with it. A minister who actually took on those whose salaries and pensions were paid from the heath budget, or “vested interests”, to give them their popular title, would become very unpopular very quickly too.

Politicians wouldn’t like it because their employers, the voters, wouldn’t like it. Nobody likes going to the dentist even though we know we have to.

That’s the thing about democracy: tomorrow is nearly always someone else’s problem.

 
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Ireland as a liberal oasis.

Posted by Jason O on Jan 14, 2017 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

islandPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

As a columnist, giving out yards about the state of the country is pretty much bread and butter. But I’ve always tried, if not succeeded, to convey that my frustration with this country is not from anger with it, but the fact that it is so tantalisingly close to moving from being a great country to a world leader.

It’s from that perspective that I get irritated when I see, and it’s pretty common in Ireland, someone launch a tirade about what an awful place this country is. You’ve heard it yourself. They’ll start with homelessness, or health waiting lists, or mental health services, or any number of legitimate areas of dissatisfaction. But that will be a launch pad into how we have no health service, no welfare system, no housing, how the country is run by the banks and how austerity has left us in a third world country. How we have no democratic choices and how the Gardai are fascist boot-boys and how the media is run by Ireland’s version of C. Montgomery Burns.

Except they get to say all this freely. And secret police don’t kick in their doors, or shut down the Socialist Worker. And they do win seats in the national parliament and draw very nice salaries.

See, that’s the frustrating bit. This country has its flaws in its public services yet our health service provides cheap and efficient care for millions. The great majority of our people are housed pretty well. Hunger is less of a problem than obesity. Our old people get good pensions.

Say what you will about Enda and Micheal and the rest, because you can. Unlike in Turkey or Russia. In Russia journalists investigating crime and corruption get murdered. Know what happens when a crime journalist gets murdered here? As it happens, we do know. The state, our state, mobilised to defend freedom of speech and brought its boot down not on the free press but those who threatened violence against it. Give abuse to our politicians and they might abuse you back, but they won’t send thugs around, even the ones who used to justify murdering political opponents.

But if you really want to know what a great country this is, ask someone who lives and works here but isn’t an EU citizen. Ask them would they like an Irish passport, and they’ll tell you it is a treasured document.

This isn’t all an accident. We’ve made mistakes, and lacked ambition for ourselves, especially with our natural resources, but this has been, since the end of the civil war, one of the most free nations on Earth. As the Trumps and Wilders and Le Pens and Erdogans and Putins become the norm, our little island may well be one of the few tiny specks of light in the coming darkness.

There’s a potential for us, to be Singapore on the Atlantic, but with, you know, a proper democracy. A small well-run place where crazy people are kept away from power. Where Enda and the rest, for all they do that gets up our nose, aren’t Trumpolini. Ourselves, Canada and New Zealand have the chance to be a haven for Americans and others. For a fee, of course. We can’t let everybody in.

But we have a clean, stable, English speaking country with socialised medicine, strict gun control, no death penalty, same-sex marriage, public broadcasting standards, a restriction on paid political advertising on TV and fair elections. We’ve even got an American in the cabinet, and they’ll just love Michael D with the poetry and the Castro. Yeah, the abortion thing might annoy them but given what the Republicans are planning to do with abortion it’s not impossible we end up becoming a pro-choice country just as the US buys a second-hand 8th amendment.

As President Trump starts pulling back on foreign direct investment by US companies, we might find ourselves scrambling for some other strategy.

I think I might have it. You know that ad the National Lottery are currently running about the guy who wins the lottery and buys an island which he gives to Ireland? The first time I saw it, I thought it was just silly and not a little bit colonialist. But then it struck me. If Ireland remains one of the few countries in the world not run by a variation of either Nazis or good old fashioned eejits (I’m looking at you, Venezuela), we could be a refuge for moderate rich liberals who want either to ride out the storm o’crazy or even retire. But the weather isn’t great here, and it’s a serious problem for all those Californian liberals.

But what if the state did buy an island somewhere nice? Owned by the state, operated by the state, and served by Aer Lingus. We could extend our non-crazy jurisdiction to the island, and still tax those liberal refugees. We could stick a few guards and soldiers on it, use rotation to the island for six months as a sweetener in the public sector talks, and here’s the best bit.

It would become a  holiday destination for the Irish. Good weather but also somewhere you could still see “Fair City”, get proper chips and Brennans sliced pan. We’d keep the holiday spending in the extended country’s economy.

Of course, we’d have to do something about the duty free and the price of a pint. As for who we’d appoint governor…

 
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When making choices becomes unpopular.

Posted by Jason O on Jan 8, 2017 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

oil-rigPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

Every once in a while a myth emerges that Ireland could be the Saudi Arabia of either natural gas or fish if it hadn’t been for the dastardly EU or multinationals robbing our natural resources. It’s a very comfortable myth that fits meets with all the criteria of a good Irish tale of suffering and woe.

Firstly, it’s about the simple decent Irish being tricked out of something by more clever foreigners, once again left standing on the side of the market road with a bag of beans as some rapscallion legs it with our prize heifer. Secondly, the prize is always something magical that could have solved all our problems if only we had a chance to benefit from it. Thirdly, it fits in with our bizarre national pride in being the fabled Most Oppressed People Ever, a country with an almost masochistic pleasure in being done in once again. As if our national symbol shouldn’t be a harp but a “Pulp Fiction” style leather gimp mask.

It’s a load of nonsense. It’s true, we do let other countries take out vast amount of fish from our waters. But the question I always ask is what were we doing with those fish before we joined the EEC in 1973? Bear in mind the Norwegian people turned down EEC membership in the same year  because they had exploited their resources and felt they didn’t need to join. Were we a fishing superpower, exploiting our natural resources before the evil continentals came and stole our golden goose?

No, we weren’t. In our 50 years of independence from 1922 until we joined the EEC in 1973 we did feck all with our much ballyhooed natural resources. We had no Brits to bully us, no European Commission to set down fishing quotas. We had just us and near total national sovereignty. We were masters of our own domain.

Did we build our own super trawlers and factory ships and conquer foreign markets with good Irish fish? Did we create hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs as a result, stemming the flow of emigration that blighted our land for a century and more?

No. We did little, but started complaining once someone else did something with them, even though we benefitted both directly and indirectly, as did they.

And, by the way: you know all that complaining we do about Spanish trawlers? We were in the EEC before Spain was. We were on the team negotiating with Spain on them joining, so we can hardly complain that Spain got too good a deal.

With Spain in 1985, as with us joining in 1972, we did a cost benefit analysis. What was in our overall interest? Would we lose fish to others? Yes. Would we gain in other areas by joining the EEC and not blocking Spain, as we could have? Yes. We took a conscious decision that hurting our fishermen, and we did hurt them, was in the long run of benefit to the common good for the majority, and we were right. This country, and the people in it, are far richer than in was in 1972 when we had complete control over our fisheries. We had far more farmers than fishermen and they benefitted from access to European markets, standards and the Common Agricultural Policy.

The fact that we chose not to share more of that new wealth with those fishing communities was not a decision made in Brussels, but in the Dail. National sovereignty in action.

In recent years, it’s becoming fashionable to talk once again about national sovereignty as if it is some newly discovered concept. As if suddenly just ignoring the EU or globalisation is some sort of Make Ireland Great Again switch that we could just press if the people we keep electing in free elections weren’t all traitors and sell-outs.    

Yet national sovereignty itself is a compromise between symbolism and the power to shape a nation’s destiny. North Korea has much more national sovereignty than South Korea, for example. The south is tied into defence and trade alliances with the US and Japan, whereas North Korea barely listens to China, if anyone. Yet in the south they ponder buying the new Samsung or an iPhone, whereas in the north the big debate for many is whether there’s enough tree bark to go around for supper. Which people have more real sovereignty, that is, control over their actual lives?

The debate to be had isn’t about national sovereignty, but a dangerous growing tendency in electorates across the west to not liking choices. It’s hardly suprising: the post-1945 welfare state was fuelled by levels of growth and borrowing that made choices easy. But there are no easy choices left.

Look at the hand-wringing on-line over the horrific scenes coming out of Aleppo, and Europeans demanding their governments do something. In the same breath, many of the same people oppose Europe acquiring a serious military capability, or the consequences of taking in refugees, or creating some vast EU funded safe-zone somewhere.

But this is the challenge for the new generation of those seeking office. To confront the people who elected them and tell them that phrases like national sovereignty are meaningless. That modern life is about choices, often choosing the least worst of them.

The politician who figures out how to communicate that and still get elected will rule the world.

Copyright © 2017 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.