Should we fill some public offices by lottery?

In the really excellent French political drama “Baron Noir”, which I recently finished watching on Amazon Prime, one candidate for the French presidency advocates a policy of sortition, that is, the filling of public offices not by direct election but by lottery.

It’s not a totally new idea: Athens did something similar back in ye olde day, but on the face of it, it sounds loopy. God knows what we would get into office. Indeed, the biggest opponents to it tend to be convinced that extremes will end up in office, horrible old bigots or commies. It also threatens to leave you with a public body that voters look at and ask “who are those people supposed to represent? Not me!”

Certainly, when I first heard of the idea I thought it was nuts.

I’m not so sure there’s isn’t a role for it now.

Someone recently told me of an industry event they attended where a politician spoke at it, and was so ignorant of the subject in question that some of the attendants started laughing in the middle of the politician’s address. Just to be clear: they weren’t laughing in disagreement: they were laughing because the politician was so badly informed.

I’m not sure it was the politician’s fault: he has a reputation for being a very astute constituency operator. Politican goes Where the Voters Are! Shock Horror!

But it does raise the issue as to whether the skills and indeed personality needed to get elected are actually the same to govern the country reasonably well? Indeed, as a country we are disturbingly comfortable at handing over executive day to day decision-making power to appointed officials from NPHET to City & County Managers to judges.

On top of that, why would you run for office anyway? We’ve seen the abuse people get for running for election. Running for election is very very hard in Ireland. It can be expensive, and incredibly time consuming. Want to improve the quality of live in Dublin City? Don’t run for the council: join it and work your way up. You’ll have more power than most cllrs within five years. A democracy where candidates for political office become a sort of caste apart is not a healthy democracy. We need ordinary people to take part in public decision making.

Now, let’s not go mad. I’m not proposing we replace elections with lotteries. But consider an alternative.

Supposing if every half-term we appointed, say, a fifth of the county council at random by lottery. For a fixed two and a half year term. We’d gender balance it, and any eligible citizen could register, knowing that if they were picked they’d have two and a half years to make arrangements, and would be paid whatever their current salary was. If we applied it to Dublin City Council, it would mean 13 new cllrs appointed every 2.5 years. If it applied to Seanad Eireann, it would mean 12 new senators arriving fresh. Of course, there’d have to be some training, but after that let them at it.

I suggested this once to a party political activist and he actually got red-faced angry at the idea that people were “jumping the queue”. As if the political system was owned primarily by politicians.

But we could get crazy people! Yes, almost certainly. We’d get the odd racist, but also the odd transgender person. We could get some headtheball roaring and shouting about immigration and Travellers. We could also get our first black former asylum seeker citizen looking nervously at her family in the public gallery as she takes her seat in Seanad Eireann. Indeed, one thing we would get more than anything else would be people who never thought they’d ever hold public office in the republic. People who weren’t political insiders. Perhaps an awkward squad who asked awkward questions and made the professional politicians shift awkwardly. All to the good, I say.

But you could end up with some extremist holding the balance of power! Why? They’ll only do that if the other parties don’t cooperate.

They’d serve their two and a half years, and be on their way. Some will milk it, some will be corrupt, and some will be able to speak on legislation because it is what they do in real life. Some may find that the really liked being a senator or county councillor, and run for real. But you would almost certainly have families suddenly finding a senator or councillor in the home where as before it was a different world to them.

It would certainly be interesting to try it on a pilot scheme level, just to measure the public interest. Maybe nobody would register? But bear in mind one thing: it’s not that unusual. After all, we let randomly selected juries have the power to deprive their fellow citizens of their freedom, something more powerful than anything a member of the county council or Seanad Eireann currently does.

Traditional Neutrality doesn’t work when you’re fighting Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

blofeldPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition (2017). 

I was speaking this week to the managing director of a small Irish software company who was just back from the states. He was telling me that he had been attending a technology conference where one speaker had announced that the Third World War was currently being waged. What had struck him, the Irish businessman told me, was that there was a murmur of agreement about the statement. That this was not a shocker to the delegates. It wasn’t even news.

Every day, across the world there are battles going on, between hackers, private companies, state players, criminals and terrorists, with the battlefield being the online systems that run modern life.

You say this to people of a certain vintage and there’s eye-rolling and some remark about watching too much James Bond. But consider that only last month NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre held a gathering in Talinn, Estonia, of nearly 600 experts in the field to discuss the securing of vital infrastructure from cyberattack. If NATO, the world’s preeminent defence organisation is taking the issue seriously, then it needs to be taken seriously by us too.

There’s still a feeling amongst many ordinary people that the threat is somehow otherworldly, something that doesn’t affect real life or if it does is of nuisance value more than anything else.  But consider someone accessing air traffic control, or the national electricity grid, or wiping electronically stored medical files, or the ATM system. Picture having no food in the house for your children, and having no cash and your cards not working, things that seem minor until suddenly you can’t get diesel for your car or feed a hungry child.

What’s more worrying is the source of the threat. James Comey, the former director of the FBI, told the United States Congress last week that Russia did interfere by a variety of methods in the 2016 US presidential election. That’s one level. An active attempt to shut down, for example, our nation’s electrical grid would paralyse the country and possibly cost lives.

Then consider the culprits. The Russians? Of course? Terrorists? Possibly. But even more so, even, yes, private criminal enterprises with the power not just to commit identity theft or online banking fraud. But using ransomware on major corporate or national systems goes from being a heist to an attack on national infrastructure. Sounds far-fetched, but we’re not talking some guy sitting in an underground lair stroking a cat. We’re talking exceptionally bright hackers in an apartment somewhere, in Moscow, in Lisbon, in Bristol, in Oranmore with the power to inflict damage on vital systems as disruptive as if they’d bombed it.

In recent weeks we’ve talked about the possible need for an Irish intelligence service. It has been raised in the light of the Manchester and London attacks, but the threat spectrum is so much wider, and we need to consider do we have the capacity and the expertise to deal with threats to our national security and economic stability from Islamists to Russian aggression to freelance operators.

Our traditional response, that sure aren’t we grand lads altogether and sure why would anyone have a beef with us is complacent and ends the day a half dozen bodies lie bleeding in the street outside a US multinational, or a commercial drone bought for a grand explodes a homemade IED with ball bearings over Croke Park during the All-Ireland. We are goalkeepers, and they are strikers. We have to be lucky always, they only have to be lucky once.

The old Irish neutrality works on the basis that all players are rational nation states, and no one would be interested in us. That’s no longer true. A future referendum in Ireland on an EU treaty would be of huge interest to the Putin regime who regard weakening the EU as a policy objective. Of course they’d interfere in our campaign. Putting the Putin regime aside, as with so many things in the age of globalisation, even terrorism has been outsourced and made cheaper and accessible to all. The fear of losing all your laptop files is terrorism, albeit at a nuisance level. Shutting down the approach lights to Dublin Airport is a different scale. The difference is that the latter no longer needs a nation state’s resources to carry out. Look at the recent terror attacks: they’re more the act of a terrorist franchise than part of a wide and coordinated conspiracy.

If you believe that traditional neutrality will keep us safe from those attacks, you are mistaken, because many of these attacks may not even be ideological but pure and simple criminal extortion: give us X or Y happens.

We have a fetish in Ireland about military neutrality, and it seems to come in two forms. The first is the sheer terror that we’ll be conscripted to fight in someone else’s reckless foreign adventure, something which doesn’t just happen unless the national political system wants it to happen. The French and Germans, key members of NATO, refused to send troops to engage in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and guess what? Nothing happened to them. Bottom line is that the only people who decide where Irish troops go are the Irish.

The second fetish is about spending money on military equipment. This is by far the more surreal view, mixed in with a weird analysis that we would never apply to any other item of public expenditure. Ask the Irish to spend taxes on an MRI machine, they’ll have no problem, even if we don’t need it. It could sit unused for weeks at a time in the corner of a regional hospital, a hulking totem to what a compassionate people we are. But spend money on tanks or God forbid armed aircraft and it’s the foreign policy equivalent of saying “Candyman” five times into a mirror.

Having said that, spending money on national security, from terrorism to infrastructure security from  cyber-attack is something an Irish government could justify. Of course, we would have to go through the usual carry-on such as finding an Irish name for the agency that nobody will remember, a huge debate over the terms, conditions and pensions of its employees, another row over where the first director should be a guard or some ex FBI guy, and then finally the Healy-Raes will kick up blue bloody murder unless it’s based in Kerry.

Yes, we’ll go through all that rigmarole, but here’s the big deal. Such is the task of monitoring and acting quickly on intelligence against threats that we’re going to need help from whomever is the best at this, and that means the Americans, the Brits, the French, the Germans, NATO, basically all the people we say we have nothing to do with because we’re neutral. We need the National Security Agency and GCHQ to be listening in to our phones and reading our messages and teaching us how to do it. We’ll need our own well-staffed and equipped GCHQ.

See, that’s the issue. There is no neutrality anymore, at least, not as we know it.  We are under attack now. The HSE was attacked two weeks ago. We are a target rich environment as an EU member, the backdoor to the UK and a major recipient of US investment.

It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. We need to start spending the money.

If we succeed the public will probably never know. But if we fail it’s all we will ever talk about.

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The salary scandal.

A bank employee counts Euro notes at Kasikornbank in Bangkok

1. An individual in a public/NGO organisation is discovered to be on a Lotto style pay package.

2. Organisation initially tries to deem this a “private matter”. Is shouted down by public, stampeding backbench TDs and grassroots members.

3. Organisation admits truth. Suggests that no one in organisation can explain how salary came about. Suggestion that it was made by someone conveniently dead is a popular favourite.

4. Basic investigative techniques like inquiring from the bank who authorised the payments, and working backwards, are deemed “inappropriate”, which is one of the great Irish words.

5. The public get cranky over the idea that anyone can earn over €100k, on the basis that “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys rule” obviously does not apply in Ireland. (See Irish financial regulation, 1997-2011)

6. The story goes around and round in circles with the actual answer, who authorised this, never emerging. Public hearings seem to involve more windy grandstanding than actual specific questions.

7. Someone resigns on a Lotto style severance package.

8. The phrase “for legal reasons” (the other great Irish phrase) is bandied about to blur the situation. In a shock outcome, Learned Colleagues make a nice little earner on whole affair.

9. The organisation promises a new “robust” structure for salary/remuneration.

10. Rinse and repeat.

Why Ireland should join a European Defence Force.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

If there is one national trait that separates the Irish as a race from many others, it is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once. Take last week, where we sniggered at an ad put out by Boris Johnson declaring a very substantial increase in the British defence budget, classing British forces as a force for good in the world and the bravest of the brave.

We sniggered and also gnashed our teeth, remembering Bloody Sunday and the British army at its worst, opening fire into a crowd of civilians in response to what regard as a legitimate paramilitary operation against an occupying power, the assassination of British intelligence operatives on a quiet Sunday morning.

The solution to statues.


“History’s greatest monster!”

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

I think I have it. The solution to the problem of statues of individuals falling out of favour with people or becoming unfashionable. 

The ancient Romans, used to redesigning public monuments as previous emperors fell out of favour with the new regime came up with the concept of having interchangeable heads on statues. 

All hail whatsisname until he either drops dead from overindulging on pheasant stuffed butter-fried giraffe or until the senate accidentally repeatedly stabs him, and the new fella needs to be lauded. Off comes the head, always sitting on a flattering chiselled Love Island style physique, and on goes the head of the new guy. 

Good Reads: Alfie-The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne.

“Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne” by Trevor White. Alfie Byrne is unique in the history of Independent Ireland. As Lord Mayor of Dublin continuously from 1930-1939, a former member of the House of Commons and both TD and senator, he was arguably the third or fourth most well known politician in the country. But more importantly, by his mayoral office he was seen as someone who spoke for Dubliners and in particular the working class Dubliners who loyally re-elected him time after time. The office of mayor, despite being ceremonial, was a useful soapbox that allowed him to intervene in the lives of many through access to the Corporation. After Byrne, the city council never again elected someone to two consecutive terms, returning the mayoralty to a mere political jolly, long enough for a year long ego trip but not long enough to be blamed for anything.

Makes one wonder what an elected mayor with powers could do.

Good Reads…

“Why we get the wrong politicians” by Isabel Hardman is a very readable and honest account of the flaws of the British political system from someone who has had day to day experience of it. It’s particularly interesting when looking at Westminster from an Irish perspective, and about how party organisations in the UK are much more centralized than in Ireland. Lose the support of the central party and even as a sitting MP your career is over. It also dismisses the belief held by Irish politicians that UK pols don’t have to do constituency work: a running theme is that MPs are becoming as inundated with constituency casework as Irish TDs, the difference being that the level of work done has a much less significant effect on one’s personal vote in the UK than in Ireland.

The US through a TV lens.


Previously published in the Irish Independent.

I was watching an episode of “NCIS” recently. You know “NCIS”, right? Actually, chances are you flicked through an episode if you were watching TV because it seems to be perpetually on one of the murder channels, yet have never watched it. 

A regular staple of American pensioners, “NCIS” can be watched as an intriguing insight into how mainstream middle America sees itself.

Every week is a collection of pre-baked tropes: a body is found, with some tenuous connection to the US Navy (NCIS is the Navy’s detective division). The victim used to be a marine or is wearing Old Spice or something.  

Special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his team investigate. 

His younger more tech-savvy team try to explain evidence to him using technical terms that the audience can actually understand but Gibbs snarls at with a demand they “speak English”, on behalf of that section of the aging audience that keep accidentally taking photos of their ear with their “too fancy” smartphone.

Gibbs will berate any bureaucrat who tries to hinder him with nit-picking rules (like the Bill of Rights), and many investigations eventually lead to Gibbs and his team discovering that the simple murder they were investigating actually leads to a major terrorist plot, right up to a plot to murder the President or start a war with Russia, with NCIS the last line of national defence.

By the way, I do love the way during the show they announce themselves as “NCIS” to civilians who don’t go “And what’s that now? Is that some sort of transgender thing?”   

Occasionally, Gibbs and his team will travel abroad, where it is assumed that US law applies, and they have a right to carry out gun battles on foriegn streets and arrest the citizens of foriegn countries. 

The baddies are always punished, normally in a hail of bullets or by Gibbs threatening to send them to Guantanamo (to hell with pesky rules again), and the families of military personnel who die during the show are always looked after, especially if they have children. 

Except for Gibbs’ wife and child who were killed by a Mexican drug dealer whom Gibbs, a former Marine sniper, hunted down and killed, and has thus earned him the right to look off wistfully into the distance and build a boat in his basement. 

You know, working with wood. The sign of a real man. 

“NCIS” is basically the American version of “Midsomer Murders”. 

It rarely shocks, has a clear moral narrative, and is a comic version of how a country sees itself. Its star, Mark Harmon, is a 68 year old silver fox and he’s not even the oldest member of the cast. That’ll be David McCallum at 83. 

You can’t help thinking that all across America in nursing homes there are pensioners delighting at watching Gibbs kicking the tar out of men thirty years his junior without having “one of his falls” or needing his special tablets.  

It is also the number one TV drama on American network TV, and has been for the last ten of its eighteen years on the air, with one aspect of its appeal, I suspect, being its simple moral reassurance. The military, the flag, clear definition of good guys (The US and Israel) and bad guys (Arabs, slippery accented Europeans and the odd Russian), and loads of guns.

I’ve always been intrigued by how a society reflects itself in TV drama, especially that drama which doesn’t try to tell a warts and all story of itself, but instead tries to portray a reassuring picture of how the society would like to see itself. 

“NCIS” is watched by older, whiter and generally more conservative viewers, but even they are seeing in it what they want to see. Sure, it’s a show about the military. 

But it’s also a show about civil servants (albeit with guns) funded by taxes using said taxpayer funds to hunt down criminals, and with nearly every problem solved by the NCIS team using substantial amounts of taxes. 

Not that anyone ever says that in the show. They’re too busy blowing baddies away. 

A different take on America can be seen in the TV series “Homeland”, which had its final episode last week. For those unfamiliar, it was a show about a CIA operative (Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes) and her brilliant curmudgeon boss Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, both giving captivating performances. It started out with the CIA battling Islamist extremists and their agents, before pivoting to the Russian threat in its final seasons. 

As a show it was superb at painting the current battle America is having with itself, as US political, state and media institutions are manipulated by America’s enemies, in one season reducing the first female president to powerlessness. 

Both characters are dedicated unashamedly Deep State public professionals who see their duty to the American republic as more important than their own family relationships or personal success, battling America’s enemies whilst side-stepping venal right wing commentators and weak pandering politicians. 

No show has managed to communicate America’s internal fall from grace better, still The Global Military Superpower and yet domestically an actual battleground for its enemies. 

Whilst both are fictional dramas to be taken with a pinch of salt, “Homeland” takes a much more nuanced view of where the US is. Both characters are ruthless in their defence of America, ordering special forces and drone strikes to kill threats to US security, and yet both regard the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as counter-productive political gimmicks that made the US less safe, not more. 

“Homeland” was less about goodies and baddies and more about morally ambivalent choices, right up to its final episode.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that “Homeland” was only seen by a fraction of the weekly US viewership of “NCIS”.  

A border poll must be only the opening part of the reunification debate.

Previously published by The Irish Independent.

It’s ironic to think that the single biggest outcome of Brexit could be the replacement of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland with Great England (featuring Wales and the Isle of Man.). But it’s not an unreasonable to see a domino track from Brexit to Scottish Independence to a United Ireland. This is a real live proposition and we need to start considering it.

So here’s the bit that will activate a thousand Shinnerbots and the usual Free Stater/West Brit name throwing: a border poll can’t just trigger a Brexit-style united Ireland without knowing the actual details of what a United Ireland will look like. 

Yes, I know, this is the bit where people jump up with well-worn copies of the Good Friday Agreement and a loud “Well, actually…” I get it. A border poll in the north (and only the north, something many in the republic don’t get) transfers sovereignty in principle.

Supposing Boris decides to honour it almost immediately, regardless of the size of the winning margin or any details, just ups and out in weeks, telling the Irish government that the salaries and pensions and health funding and all the rest are our problem from midnight of day X.

Don’t be ridiculous, you say! There are agreements and understandings between Britain and Ireland and words given and Boris…..Johnson…..isn’t…..like…..that….

See the problem.

Don’t forget, we can’t force the British to not give us the north of Ireland and all its public spending and pension liabilities and victim compensation responsibilities. It’ll be the first thing we’re asked by the former unionists and not an inconsiderable number of nationalists too. 

Will we meet all Britain’s spending liabilities?

But Britain has obligations, many Shinnerbots will cry, suddenly realising that it is they trying to convince me that I need to trust the British Tories to keep their word.  

Guess what: I don’t.

The Taoiseach will of course go on television that night and announce that the people of the north of Ireland do not need to worry. The Irish state will honour their NHS funding and pensions and all the rest.

Then the DUP will point out all the social welfare payments in the south that are higher than in the north, and demand parity of esteem. 

It’ll be at this stage that the minister for finance will be sending for a new pair of trousers. 

The Americans! The EU! The United Nations! Bill Gates! The National Lottery! The 2:30 at Chepstow! All will be declared to be the source of funding the ten to fifteen billion in extra spending we suddenly have to find. And all, suffering the same Covid ravaging of their national finances that we went through will say the same thing: sorry Paddy. You wanted it, you pay for it.

The minister for finance will know the reality. Yes, we probably can borrow for a while, the legacy of not going all Maduro On The Shannon back in the day. But it’s not sustainable. Either taxes go up, or spending is cut, but neither necessarily on either side of the former border. 

The minister, in front of a wall of tricolours announces that we, the Irish people, have always known that sacrifices would have to be made in the cause of unity, and so it has come to pass.     

By the way, speaking as a republican, I don’t regard Free State as an insult. I just like reminding people what it stands for: the section of the Irish people who actually defeated the British in our bit.