Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Personal safety matters.

Posted by Jason O on Sep 9, 2020 in Irish Independent, Irish Politics, Politics

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

It’s very easy to understand the recent calls for hate crime legislation that came from many decent people, rightly outraged at the racist attack on a Chinese woman near Dublin’s Royal Canal. 

But would it have helped her if such a law was already on the statute book? 

Would those who attacked her have paused because they would have feared crossing some legal rubicon? 

It’s all well and good having laws in statute books, but what anyone under physical criminal attack needs is help, primarily from either police capable of delivering a speedy and robust defence, or the attackers fearing that continuing the attack will reduce their chance of escape. 

What comes after, how society deals with the crime through its judicial system, is a different matter. 

But for now, we need to focus on rapid response to the crime-in-progress, and it’s simply not logical to expect the Garda to be everywhere. 

Even if we doubled the number of Guards it would have only a limited impact and almost less in public perception than the cost of doing it. 

But I can’t help thinking technology and some imagination might give a better return.

Perhaps highly visible Garda drones should be commonplace, hovering over high-risk areas and connected to a command centre that can automatically feed images into facial recognition software. They can be used to rush quickly to reported incidents, and whilst they can’t physically intervene they can assist in the apprehension of criminal suspects by ground units. 

Indeed, a group of criminals engaged in, say, a mugging, have an incentive to desist and flee because the drone can only track a few of them at a time.

Would putting more Garda on motorbikes (guided by Drone Central) allow for a more rapid deployment?

Should those convicted be required to register their mobile phones with the Garda, and carrying an unregistered device be made a criminal offence for convicted criminals? A sort of digital ASBO?

I can’t claim to have any expertise in law enforcement of course, and there will almost certainly be problems with the above suggestions, but surely some experimentation might help. 

The NYPD cracking down on illegal street windscreen cleaners resulted in loads of warrant jumpers being accidentally located. Many old-guard cops in New York City sneered when the ComStat crime tracking system was first mooted, but it became an important aid in identifying crime patterns and allowing for the better targeting of resources. It played a significant role in the reduction of crime in New York  in the 1990s. 

One interesting point would be that such use of technology would possibly lead to an increase in reported crime, as citizens who currently may not bother to report crime because they have no faith in it being investigated might then do so. Imagine an app where one could report “low level” crime like graffiti or vandalism or flytipping, knowing that every report adds to a better picture of where crime is or more importantly might occur, and allow for better deployment of resources. 

The suggested use of much greater surveillance, through recognition software, data collection and eyes-in-the-sky certainly warrants a debate about what sort of society do we want? 

Do we want to live in a country like that?

What if the choice is between the nominal freedom of less surveillance, where some gang of gurriers can kick your teeth in with both your and their privacy being respected, or a Garda drone either frightening them into stopping or guiding Gardai to your location?

What would you prefer? It probably depends on whether your mouth is filled with the slight metallic taste of your own blood. 

To paraphrase one of fiction’s most hardline lawmen, who do you want to see arriving when you’re being mugged? A policeman or your attacker’s human rights advocate?

Of course we must have human rights. 

We have to be very careful about not accidentally stumbling into a police state. 

I’m also very much a sceptic about throwing anyone in prison and throwing away the key. 

It’s incredibly expensive and for the most part it doesn’t work. 

Nor am I certain what the alternative is.

But I do know one thing for certain. 

My personal safety, my liberty and right to walk this country without fear of assault is at least as equal as the rights of the people who might assault me, and if the defence of those rights involves living in a society with a greater level of public surveillance, I can live with that.

I get that putting young people into a brutal prison system is almost guaranteed to make them criminals. 

We should not see prison as primarily some sort of old testament form of revenge. We should also recognise that the likes of Norway has had great success in reducing juvenile crime by taking a more liberal and enlightened approach to incarceration. 

I’m willing to look at all that and yes, if necessary, fund it with my taxes.

But what I’m not willing to tolerate is that I have to sacrifice my physical safety to reach that point. 

Yes, prison should be about rehabilitation, but primarily it should be about keeping violent people physically away from the rest of us, and yes, that should be its primary function. 

As part of that debate, there’s much talk in recent times about the phrase Defund the Police. 

As slogans go, it’s hard to imagine one which is so damaging to the cause it purports to advance. In fairness, for many of its advocates, Defund the Police isn’t about abandoning our law enforcement-free streets to thugs, but proactively spending on things that might prevent crime in the first place.

It’s a perfectly noble aim. 

I just prefer the slogan in its original form: Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.   

 
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A statue for all people.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 29, 2020 in Irish Politics

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. 

 
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Short story: All products available in-store.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 26, 2020 in Irish Politics


As it turned out, a Lidl joint of preserved Spanish Serrano ham was just the right size to bash your husband of ten years to death. 

It had been the affair that had finally  triggered it. The secret texts, the suspicious amount of time being spent in the shed “looking for that thing”. 

She hadn’t planned it, but there’d been the argument and the accusations and suddenly it was in her hands and one clean swing and contact at just the right part of his head and he was dead before his smug annoying face hit her tiles which she’d only had put down before the lockdown, having sourced them from Ireland’s leading independent builders providers and home improvement store at surprisingly competitive prices.

She sat and recomposed herself. 

The lockdown had certainly put them both in a frustrated state of mind, tipping them over into blazing rows, and the discovery of the affair ended it, although the marriage had been over for a number of years before.

Maybe if there had been children, she thought, but dismissed it just as quickly. 

Her friends who had kids just seemed to find different things to fight about, mostly about who was taking little Sebastian to his violin lesson on Saturday morning.

She surprised herself that she felt no remorse, her mind not swimming but calm. If anything she was surprised not just how calm she was, but how it was subsconsciously moving onto what she needed to do next. 

Years of “CSI” and “Midsomer Murders” were now rushing in, filling gaps in a plan. 

Right, first things first.

She put on a pair of laytex gloves (thank you Covid-19), and grabbed his phone, and used his cold thumb to unlock it. She then reset the password so that she could access it when she needed.

Then she brought down those giant vacuum storage bags she’d bought, and squeezed his body into one, zipping it up and sealing it with the vacuum cleaner, but not fully because she remembered from an episode of some murder show that the body gives off gases and expands post-mortem, so she left the bag loose to allow expansion. She then put that bag inside another bag, and sealed that loosely just to be sure.

She had thought about putting the body in the deep freeze, but that would show up on an autopsy, and anyway her plan meant she could dispose of him before he started to seriously decompose.

A look at her watch. 8pm. It was starting to get dark.

This could work, she thought. 

She got dressed, and took his phone, walking out of the estate and down towards the harbour. She made sure to dress warm, covering herself up and wearing that stupid bright red hat he wore when walking because he thought it made him look like a young hipster. 

The harbour was only ten minutes away on foot, and she as she walked she scrolled through various text and WhatsApp messages looking for the right one. 

She found it. His best mate. A quick look through previous texts to give her an idea of what sort of language he used, and she sent a message.

“Telling u mate, not sure how much more I can take of this crazy bitch.”

When she reached the hardbour, she looked around to make sure there were no cameras or other people, then smashed the phone against some rocks and tossed it in the water.

She walked back to the house, and it was now dark, and reentered. 

Wrapping the vacuumed packed body in a black plastic bag, she checked the way was all clear, opened the boot, and in a clean run got the body in and door down just as a bloke with a dog walked by. 

He smiled the Covid smile and walked on. 

Just before she got into the car she stopped to think.

Had she missed anything?

Her own phone would stay in the house, his phone showed him clearly leaving and going for a walk down by the harbour. On impulse, she ran back inside and filled a small paper bag with a carton of milk, bread, and a swiss roll. She then got into the car, and slowly drove out of the estate, and straight into a Garda checkpoint. 

Where the hell had that come from?

The young Garda was accompanied by two plain clothesed officers wearing “Armed Garda” flak jackets. He raised his hand. 

“Good evening, can I ask you where you are going?”

“I’m just dropping some stuff down to a friend near the harbour. Cocooning. She’s nearly 80.” 

The Garda looked at the bag on the passenger seat, and nodded, waving her on. 

As it happened, she did actually drop groceries down to an elderly woman she knew regularly, so she headed down, rang the doorbell, and presented the unexpected bounty to the confused but grateful senior citizen, having a vague alibi if the young Garda recalled her being out.

She chatted with her for a few minutes, then got into her car, and headed to the rocks near the harbour. When it was all clear, she opened the boot, lifted out the vacuum bag and dragged it to the edge, muttering under her breath about her departed husband’s love of “Fucking Swiss Rolls”.

She used a Stanley blade to careful cut him out of the bags, put his red hat on his head, and tipped the body into the water, where the waves started hitting it against the jagged rocks before it sank.

She hoped that would mask the original head injury.

She took the empty plastic bag and stopped at a random house with a recycling bin outside waiting for morning collection, and dumped the material. 

Fifteen minutes later she was home. 

They’d had a row, she’d tell the Garda tomorrow, when she reported him missing. She’d ring his phone later, frantically, repeatedly, leaving hysterical messages after she’d “calmed down and was worried he’d not returned”, leaving plenty of concerned wife evidence. 

She’d ring his best mate looking for him too. More evidence. 

But first, she’d ring her lover.  He liked Serrano ham, she recalled. 

 
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How can small parties protect themselves in government?

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


Previously published in The Irish Independent.

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

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

All three parties face a reality that must be acknowledged. 

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

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

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

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

That’s if you’re popular.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff. 

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

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

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

I suspect Alan Kelly might have less difficulty.

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

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

Previously published in The Irish Independent:

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

Nurses.

Other HSE staff.

The rest of the public service.

Mental health services.

Cancer support services.

Capital expenditure.

University funding.

Childcare.

Jobseekers benefits.

Pandemic payments.

Children’s Allowance.

Care home services.

Social housing.

Homeless services.

Reform of Direct Provision.

Defence Forces pay.

Garda numbers.

Flood relief.

Water services.

Pandemic preparation.

Overseas Aid.

Arts funding.

RTE funding.

Irish language funding.

EU budget contribution (CAP).

Rainy day fund.

United Ireland fund.

SME support.

Regional and rural development support.

IDA grants.

Old Age pensions.

Servicing the national debt.

Public service pensions.

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

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

In fairness, there’s probably a grant available.     

 
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How can such a creative country lack imagination so much?

Posted by Jason O on May 6, 2020 in Irish Politics

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

In a way, the blandness of the proposed Fianna Fail/Fine Gael agreement is a credit to us as a nation. Whereas across the world political systems are riven by vicious disagreement (The US, UK) or or dissent is simply not tolerated (China, Russia) we still have a broadly centrist system based around the idea of not getting up anyone’s nose too much. 

It could be an awful lot worse, indeed if anything that should probably be our national motto, because it’s true.You’d be hard pressed to find a better country to live in than this one, whereas there is no shortage of countries where the quality of life is worse or maintained by things we regard with outrage, like paying for water usage or requiring people pay for compulsory health insurance or indeed, in some instances, tax. Or even to work. 

That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems we need to solve. Before the big C transformed our world into a landscape of yellow and black warnings and measuring everything in two metre units we had big problems with healthcare and housing, and those problems will return along with the biggest economic challenge since FDR took office.

But as the coronavirus has shown us, as a people we have a capacity for adaptation and innovation. Both our public and private sectors have been incredibly impressive in solving problems quickly and effectively.

Which raises the question: we obviously have the brains and the skills, so why is it so hard to innovate in this country to solve problems without a global pandemic to drive it on?

The answer is Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. 

Now, let me be clear. Both of these parties have done more good than harm in this country. I know, you say this and a section of the country gets hysterical. I can feel people reading this and spitting all over their screens. 

Both parties infuriate, but I’ll take them over the US Republicans or British Tories or Orban’s Fidesz or the headbangers in Venezuela anyday. It’s been years since either of them shot their political opponents. 

But that is also the problem and the biggest obstacle to us making the next jump forward from a good nation to a great one. Their longevity, I mean. Not shooting people. 

The problem is that FF and FG now have inertia hardwired into their collective DNA. If they could have no programme for government, and were just in government to be in government I suspect they’d be quite happy with that. 

They’re not parties of the extreme, but not innovation either, because innovation is held in suspicion in Ireland. As a country, we don’t like change and both parties built their reputations and indeed their values on the concept of the minimum level of change necessary. 

As an ideology, it’s perfectly valid, but you can’t help feeling that they’re missing the opportunity of using the crisis to try to address some running sores in our society.

The single biggest one, for a start, could be telling the truth about economics. 

There’s a blatant refusal of Irish politicians to confront the Irish people with the reality that everybody must pay higher taxes to provide the level of services Irish people say they want. Indeed, knowledge of public spending and taxation tends to be in the realms of fantasy in Ireland, with obsessions about tiny amounts of money like TDs expenses, or that the highly paid or business don’t pay their “fair share” of tax. Even our definition of “fair share” isn’t defined. SMEs in particular, in paying commercial rates, pay substantial shares of county council funding yet get no public thanks for it. I sometimes wonder should county councils, with the consent of businesses, actually publish a list of what every business pays just to demonstrate the huge contribution made. 

If we are going to have a debate about resetting the economy, could we not start by informing everyone of the facts? Would it really be that terrible if the govt followed the advice of Eoghan Murphy and gave every citizen an annual breakdown of how much they pay in taxes and how much they receive directly and indirectly from the state? Or tasking the Department of Finance with running an ongoing economics education ad campaign? How much it costs to pay a nurse. How much the state pension costs. Who pays tax, and by how much. How much of the national budget is spent on the Oireachtas. What would be the objection? 

That it is political to inform people of these things? 

The other thing the new government should try is pilot schemes. 

Put 1000 people on a Universal Basic Income scheme and see what happens. 

Give the Garda a few dozen high visibility drones for patrolling both urban and rural areas.

Open a few rural post offices and Garda stations in the same buildings and see if it works. 

Give a few counties an elected mayor with full control of property and other taxes.

In short, experiment and innovate. 

Try a load of things and yes, some will fail but admit that up front.

One of the biggest excuses we use in Ireland to block change is that there isn’t consensus on an issue. That we don’t have a perfect solution to a problem, therefore should do nothing. 

It’s time to take a few small leaps of faith.

 
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The EU is doing pretty much what it says on the tin.

Posted by Jason O on May 4, 2020 in European Union, Irish Independent, Irish Politics

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

As with so many people, I’ve been spending time watching various boxsets, and recently finished “Star Trek: Picard” which tells the story of the further adventures of now retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, late of the USS Enterprise-E. (The fact I put E there is to confirm my Trekkie knowledge status, by the way.) In one episode, there’s a scene where Picard remonstrates with another admiral about the failure of the Federation (Think the EU with starships) to rescue millions of refugees from their former superpower rivals the Romulan Empire. The admiral (coincidentally resembling EU President Von Der Leyen) lays out the cool hard realpolitik of the situation: the Romulans were the enemy until very recently and that members of the Federation were threatening to leave the alliance (FedXit?) if the Romulans were taken in. 

In short, she said, the preservation of the Federation was more important.   

It was an unusual moment for “Star Trek”, which is usually (but not always) more comfortable with a straight goodies/baddies narrative.

It was also a timely scene, given the current travails that another multi-member political alliance (also with prominent French leadership) is going through, where principle meets pragmatism.  

It’s always entertaining to watch many in the now departed UK are still banging on about the EU and how doomed it apparently is. The Covid19 crisis is being used, in particular, as proof that the European ideal is some sort of gossamer-like substance that blows away at the first sign of a storm. One can’t help suspecting there’s a hint of the protesting ex-boyfriend about the Brexiteers, over their former girlfriend yet constantly hovering around Facebook seeing who she is now dating whilst adamant that they don’t care. 

Their criticism would be true if the EU were the cartoon superstate that Brexiteers always either believed it to be (through the wearing of an assortment of kitchen-foil based self-assembled headwear) or simply hoped it to be so that they could rail against it. 

The reality is that the EU is exactly what those of us supporting it always said it was: closely integrated but still a union of sovereign independent states. In a crisis, the EU is doing what it is supposed to do, clearing obstacles like relaxing state aid rules and negotiating “green lanes” through closed borders to get vital supplies through, whilst staying out of the way and letting member states do what they have to do to fight the virus at the most appropriate level, which in this case is mostly nationally.

The complaint that EU countries are putting their national interests first and foremost is a contrived one because that’s what EU countries invented the EU for: not to abolish sovereignty but to act as a de facto bionic enhancement of it, by giving national governments more tools to pursue the interests of their people. I’m a believer in freedom of movement but I also believe in the sovereign right of nations to control their borders and yes, close them in an emergency. 

Yet, even as they have done that, EU countries have been helping each other where they can, with medical resources where they can, caring for each others’ citizens, and helping to get each other’s citizens back to Europe.

The EU is not a federal government. Personally, I wish it was, but it ain’t. Instead it is a mechanism to assist cooperation. Nobody, including the Commission, wanted Brussels to be deciding who gets how many ventilators. 

Euroskeptics (and some pro-Europeans, it must be said) are complaining that the EU is not a top-down federalist superstate because, well, it isn’t. The robust debate over whether to have “Coronabonds” to fund our now eye-watering crisis debts is a healthy one, with all points of view being voiced. The EU will undoubtedly have failures during the crisis, but almost all will be because the EU institutions don’t have the power or resources to do what people now demand of them. 

That’s not a rupture in the union. That’s what a healthy democratic alliance does. 

By the way, there is one union of states where the central government has imposed orders upon the democratically elected heads of the national governments, and that would be the United Kingdom. 

I, for one, would be totally opposed to the EU being run in a manner similar to the centralised diktat of the UK, where the largest nation in the union can overrule all other members of that union. But that’s another day’s debate.  

It’s not that there aren’t lessons to be learned. The debate about a European army, or perhaps better named European Crisis Force, to be able to mobilise transport aircraft and rapidly build emergency field hospitals is a debate that has to be had. As is one about Europe’s seeming inability to rapidly manufacture emergency medical supplies.      

Then there’s Hungary, where the Orban regime is using the crisis to effectively create a dictatorship. Yes, every government has voted itself emergency powers, but Orban has form on this sort of thing, and has now suspended parliament and elections indefinitely, and there’s no place for that in the EU. 

There’s no system for expelling a country from the EU, but if the EU is anything it’s creative and it is time to call Orban’s bluff. I’m not paying my taxes for them to be used as some sort of Fidesz (Orban’s party) slush fund to keep a dodgy outfit in power.

Either Orban backs down, or Hungary has to go, by whatever means. Orban uses EU criticism as a means of bolstering power in Hungary. Maybe it’s now time for ordinary Hungarians to realize that Orban has created a Hungary that the rest of Europe does not want to be associated with, and act accordingly. 

Hungary is a sovereign nation entitled to respect. But so are the rest of us. 

For all the criticisms, Europe isn’t going away. It can’t.  

 
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Do we know what change looks like, and if we do, is it what we really, really want?

Posted by Jason O on Feb 16, 2020 in Irish Politics

I have in my gut a festering fear about Irish democracy. It’s a simple one, and it’s that many, possibly most Irish voters are hard-wired to be permanently discontent with their government. That our politicians are forever failing our voters because our voters don’t actually know what it is that would make them actually satisfied, or even partially satisfied, with their government.

Yes, I know how patronising it sounds. It’s not an indictment of voter intelligence, by the way. It’s a mixture of the consumer society we live in, where The Next Thing is always what we crave, and the permeation of our political system by marketing techniques that promise an emotional satisfaction that politicians simply cannot deliver.

Some politicians, that is. The decent ones who are genuinely trying to do their best for the society they represent. There are politicans who do emotionally satisfy their followers, of course. President Trump does, so does President Erdogan, and Prime Minister Orban. Partially by delivery, but primarily by keeping alive the fear of The Other that keeps their supporters always emotionally aroused. Protecting one from Them always delivers an emotional satisfaction of sorts

Irish politicians are perpetually over-promising, campaigning on such vague pledged outcomes that they can never deliver in the minds of many of their voters. Fine Gael (and Labour) from 2011-2020 turned the economy around, created thousands of jobs and through those jobs (something often forgotten) created the tax revenue that funds billions and billions in social welfare, housing and healthcare. Both were punished at the subsequent ballots for lying, which both did on water and property taxes, and also for not meeting the emotional promises they made.

Ah, but what about housing and healthcare? We all know that they are the defining issues, and they have failed to deliver. That’s correct. A&E on a Saturday night feels like a different country, not the rich Ireland of Silicon Quay or Terminal 2 sweeping new motorways but a failing country where nothing seems to work.

That’s the crux of the question though. We are being told that this was a change election, but was it? President Macron in France is currently suffering unpopularity from the reality that French voters have paradoxically demanded change without change. Is it possible that the fear from most Irish governing parties up to this point is that Irish voters are not much different from their French counterparts. Yes, they say they want change, right up to the moment you attempt to implement it, and then they turn on you. Change yes, but not THAT change.

They demand radical changes to Healthcare, but will they side with a reforming government against public sector unions and their families who oppose change except in an increased pay-packet?

Will they support a reforming government building much needed new housing actually on their street?

That’s the problem right there. Irish ministers of all political colours have proven themselves incapable of actually rallying voters to them when they attempt unpopular but unnecessary change. Why is that?

One reason is certainly a combination of lack of belief and imagination that they can actually deliver. Ministers who promise that closing small rural hospitals will be accompanied by air ambulances to rapidly transport patients then look like guppy fish when asked where are the actual air ambulances?

Our leaders need to take risks and show a bit of imagination. Want to close a small rural hospital? Grand. Before you do it, land a dozen brand new fully-crewed fully-operational shiny air ambulances in the old hospital car park, and offer the locals a lift there and then to the replacement regional hospital. Then maybe they might believe you.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are at a combined 42% in first preference support, which is what FF alone got in 2007. It’s fair to say the days of caution and inertia, of fearing to displease anybody and therefore please nobody are coming to a close. It’s time to take risks for change.

 
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How to use your ballot most effectively.

One of the great mysteries of the age is that we have exported Aonghus McAnally’s “The Lyrics Board” (remember that?) to more countries than we have our electoral system, the Single Transferable Vote. 

It’s a funny one, because STV is probably the most empowering voting system on the planet. It’s fair in that it is reasonably proportional, it lets geographic areas have a clear representative, and it allows voters to personally choose their representatives. 

It also allows voters to vote the way human beings actually vote, as opposed to the weird “My party is perfect, your party should be executed for crimes against decency” approach many party hacks seem to sign up to. 

STV lets voters really like those guys, hate those other guys and meh the rest.

It also has a built-in feature that almost no other voting system has. It permits you to vote for your favorite candidate and stick the electoral knife Agatha Christie deep into the back of that one candidate you really really want to keep out.     

It is by far the best voting system in the world to watch as a spectator support. Indeed, I’m surprised RTE don’t release an election count highlight DVD after every election. 

The first count result is not always the absolute decider of all the winners, and transfers allow for last minute Millenium Falcon On Its Side Speeding Through Closing Blast Doors drama comebacks. If the CNN were covering our elections, we’d have theme music for everything from the first count to transfers to the final seat, and a Wolf Blitzer (Politics nerds will get this reference) hologram live from the count centre in Laois-Offaly. 

If you’re a sadist, it’s the political system designed to taunt and dangle false hope in front of politicians who thought their seat was safe/lost and are now mocked often down to the last count. If you asked Schrodinger to design a voting system, he’d come up with this.  

It’s a voting system Dante would have loved, save for the fact that Lucifer would probably look at Irish politics and thinks “Eh, no thanks lads, even I have to look at myself in the mirror occasionally. Also: is that RHI scheme thing still open? Actually, how did those DUP canvassers even find our front door?”    

I bring it up because every time there is an election I get a flurry of messages, online and personally, from friends, relatives and readers asking how to vote. 

Most political cronies I know are the same. 

It’s an indictment, by the way, as to how badly civics was taught (or not) in our schools, and also the failure of FG and Labour to deliver the much-promised electoral commission tasked with running and educating all things election. I never saw a copy of the constitution until I found one by accident in a local newsagent, and bought it, which is also an indictment of my sadly un-misspent youth.  

People do know how to vote, but it’s the subtleties of the Single Transferable Vote that give rise to all sorts of myths and questions. Here’s a few of them. 

  1. Cast your first preference for the person you really want. This sounds so obvious, but it’s true. Don’t try to second guess other voters. Yes, parties try to get people to vote tactically, and if your party winning an extra seat is your primary goal then vote tactically. But remember, in the great majority of constituencies the people who come first to fifth, depending on how many seats are in the constituency, tend to fill the seats in the end. First preferences matter the most, because they are the only vote that will definitely be counted.
  2. You decide where your vote goes, not the parties. A clear preference must be visible to the returning officer before he transfers a vote. Your ballot paper is written permission from you to the returning officer who to transfer to and who not to.  
  3. Your preferences cannot affect your later preferences. This is another perennial that seems to have emerged from the mists of psephology. When a lower preference has been reached (2,3,4 etc) it means that the candidate beforehand has been either elected or eliminated for having the least votes available, and so is out of competition for preferences. 
  4. Do not write anything other than numbers on your ballot paper, as anything else may be taken as a sign of political intimidation: that you have been bullied into voting for a certain candidate and have put a mark on the ballot to prove to count observers that you have done what you promised.  
  5. If you want to really try to stop an individual getting elected, give a preference to every other candidate. This means that your vote is available to help any candidate fighting your most hated candidate. The more preferences you leave blank means the less help your vote can potentially be to other candidates. If there is a group of candidates you hate equally, leave them all blank. It means that none of them can help stop any other of them.
  6. No, spoiled or blank ballots do not “automatically go to the government”. I hear this every year, and I have no idea where it comes from.    

We, the people of Malta, and Australia are the only people lucky enough to use STV in national elections. It has its flaws: it makes TDs get a version of the bends if they’re out of their constituency longer than 12 hours, and obsess about the effect of fairies on municipal road planning, but as voter choice goes, it’s hard to beat. 

 
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A Thumbnail Guide to Election 2020: The See-Nothing Party Man.

Envelope? What envelope?

Envelope? What envelope?

He’s not personally corrupt. Oh, he’s sat down with developers and followed up their queries with planners, but he does that for ordinary punters too. Nothing wrong with asking a legitimate question for a constituent, as long as you don’t try to get the planner to do anything wrong, and he doesn’t.

Elected to the council after the carry-on of the 1980s and 1990s, he doesn’t get approached for “favours”. He’s the new breed of the party’s councillor who wrinkles his nose at reading about yet another former party elected rep being done for corruption.

Yet don’t ask him to fight corruption. Don’t ask him to report anything he thinks is dodgy, and he sees enough of it, to the Guards or anyone else, because that’s just not done. He’s been known to turn on his heel walking into a toilet at the the council, when he sees a colleague receiving “papers” from a developer just before a vote.

In fact, that’s the thing. He actually spends time trying to avoid learning about corruption, because he can’t report what he doesn’t know.

“Trains to where, judge? Auschwitz? I just set the timetables. Couldn’t tell you what was in them. Was it strange that they were coming back empty? Do you know, I never thought to ask.”

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