Posted by Jason O on Jun 12, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 20th February 2016.
Here’s a hypothetical for you to consider. How would Irish voters react if the government announced that National Lottery winnings were to be subject to income tax? I have a suspicion that people would be outraged. Never mind the fact that Irish voters constantly tell pollsters that “the rich” should pay higher taxes or that they’d happily pay higher taxes for better public services. If you won €500k on the Lotto and the government announced they were taking half of it, I suspect most Irish people would have their noses seriously put out of joint. Despite the fact that it is effectively free money and they’re getting to keep a quarter of a million.
There’d be all sorts of excuses as to why Lotto winners should be exempt. That they had “invested” thousands already in unsuccessful tickets. That the multinationals don’t pay their fair share of taxes. The banks. Yeah, those two words are now an excuse for anything you don’t like. Or that isn’t it unfair that some poor creature finally gets a break and now the government is piling in on him. In short, the Irish don’t like tax more than they don’t like cuts in public services.
Yet, through this, one of the most boring and curiously distant election campaigns in recent history, that real division in Irish society has barely been touched. With the possible exception of Lucinda Creighton, hardly anyone has stood up and openly defended a view held, quietly, by a huge section of the Irish people. Stuff your public services. You’ll only give my money to pay LUAS drivers more than I earn. I want to keep my own money.
The real issue in this election is, as ever, about tax. Income tax, property tax, USC, water tax. With the exception of the Social Democrats, who are getting margin of error ratings for their troubles, hardly any candidates want to defend the concept of higher taxes paid by you for better services. The alphabet left and Fianna Fail point to those living breathing crocks o’ gold, the wealthy, as the perennial source of finance for all our public service goodies. But hardly anybody will knock on the door and tell you openly that they will tax you whatever it takes to bring people poorer than you up to your level.
Put the people who just want to keep their own money, the people who say they can’t afford to pay any more tax, and the people who say that the government will just squander it and you probably have a majority of the Irish electorate. The next Dail will have a majority, regardless of who is in government, of deputies who will resist any attempt to openly (stealth taxes are different) increase taxes on the great majority of Irish people.
Yet hardly anybody wants to debate the link between taxes and public services. Nobody ever challenges members of the public on TV debate shows or Joe Duffy about why they should get more of someone else’s earnings. It’s that wonderfully Irish ability to hold conflicting views at the same time, and never be challenged on it, and it’s not doing our society a service in ignoring it.
This election campaign would have been better served if non-party people had openly debated the future of Irish society, acting as de facto proxies for our wobbling jelly politicians who won’t say boo to a goose because they reckon the goose might give them a 6th preference. A debate between, say, Fintan O’Toole and our own Cormac Lucey would be a far more engaging and honest discussion about where we would like to go as a country than what is passing for debate between the parties.
The big invisible pachyderm at the heart of Irish politics is a pretence that there is some perfect political G spot where you can get all the public services you want for buttons in taxes. Every opposition claims it, every government fails to find it, rinse and repeat. It’s nonsense, and dishonest nonsense at that.
But instead of admitting that politics is about choices, we have a parade of politicians listing out vast sums of other people’s money which always exceeds even the piddling extra taxes or savings they will admit to supporting. At the moment, our politicians would be doing less harm if they were actually handing out cash for votes rather than making promises that involve huge public sector expansion. Irish politics would be better served if they could offer us money on the doorsteps in return for the promise of a vote.
At least then, come the day of the count, it would be the politicians who’d be storming around the count centre in a temper because they’d been lied to. “I was promised thousands of votes on the doorsteps! I gave away thousands of euro! I can’t believe the voters lied to me, I mean, what sort of lying, dishonest…” They’d stop spending money on posters and leaflets and instead every election campaign would involve the candidates and a van from Securicor going from door to door haggling like Tunisian carpet salesmen. You’d certainly make sure that you were in to meet them. Indeed, you’d probably make an appointment. In the Philippines some candidates for office are known for giving out a left shoe to voters, with the promise that the voter will get the right shoe if the candidate is elected. I could easily see a candidate working his way down a street in Ranelagh or Donnybrook with a selection of Jimmy Choos.
Wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.
Posted by Jason O on May 28, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published on the 20th March 2016 in The Times Ireland Edition.
As an event, the Easter Rising and the mythos that has gathered around the events of 1916 are a bit like an impressionistic painting. From a distance it’s a striking story. A band of courageous patriots took their lives in their hands in a blow for national independence, and many of them paid the final price. Their sacrifice ignited a flame in a nation which resulted, six years later, in the withdrawal of the British from Dublin. Many who participated knew the odds and the likelihood of defeat and indeed death, yet still stepped forward into a story of simple human courage that is hard to beat.
Looking back from 2016, it has transformed from an impressionistic event to a piece of modern art which is open to interpretation from all. How many times this year will we be subjected to the use of the centenary to justify a call for more taxpayer spending for one interest group or another? As if the Easter Rising somehow suspended the laws of mathematics and made the issue of revenue versus expenditure a question which should no longer apply here?
Let’s confront a few awkward realities about 1916 and its aftermath.
Firstly, the country we are living in is pretty much the country the men of 1916 envisaged. You know how we know? Because a huge number of them ended up in the Dail, running the country. Throwing the King out and then twisting in one smooth pivot and falling down to kiss the Archbishop’s foot? That was the men of 1916, that was. Not all of them, but enough to matter. WT Cosgrave, Eamon De Valera, Sean Lemass, from 1921 to 1966, with the exception of John A Costello, this country was led by 1916 veterans.
As for the women of 1916, here’s the really awkward bit. It’s arguable they’d have gotten more rights if we’d stayed in the UK, and yes, I appreciate how mortifying it is to admit that. See Constance Markiwicz? The fabled first female cabinet minister? Her successor came in 1979. The Brits were appointing female ministers in every decade from the 1920s. The first birth control clinic opened in Britain in 1921. They had access to legal abortion from 1968. Britain elected its first female prime minister in the same year we appointed only our second female cabinet minister.
Did we build a republic more progressive than the kingdom we left? That’s where the impressionistic images of Easter get all ragged. Yes, we got rid of the monarchy, and good for us. But we replaced the monarchy with the hierarchy. On nearly every social justice issue we were behind the Brits for most of our history, not ahead of them.
So much so that it led to the awkward reality that hundreds of thousands of Irish chose to flee a sovereign government elected by their own votes in Ireland to live voluntarily under British rule. In Britain. From our first days of independence Irish people continued to take the boat to England. You didn’t see many East Germans hopping back over the wall to do some overtime.
The Ireland we built from 1922 wasn’t a betrayal of the men of 1916. That was an active choice by Irish electors in free elections. If 1916 stood for anything it stood for the right to national self-determination, and we as a people determined to remain economically and socially backward as the rest of Europe moved ahead. Indeed, economic progress only began in earnest when we started to once again share sovereignty, this time with the rest of Europe.
You cannot dismiss the sheer physical courage of those who raised rifles on that crisp, clear morning. But we are doing them a disservice by using their sacrifice as a lazy bookmark for highlighting modern day grievances and our reluctance to actually confront our problems with a sense of rationality. It’s just not good enough to utter the stock “Was it for this?” and then saunter away in indignation.
To put it in context: imagine the sneering any Irish politician would get if he raised taxes for a specific social purpose under the banner of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you.”
The men and women of 1916 asked what they could do for their country. The men and women of 2016 seem to always have an excuse why someone else should be making a greater sacrifice.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 13th December 2015.
Last week, Preet Bharara, The US Attorney (Director of Public Prosecutions) for the southern district of New York sent out a tweet welcoming the conviction of a man named Dean Skelos. Skelos was New York State’s senate majority leader, and had been known as one of the “three men in a room” along with state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and governor Andrew Cuomo who actually ran the state of New York. Skelos was convicted of bribery and extortion charges, accused of trying to enrich his son. In November, state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on corruption charges too. Both men look like getting about 130 years each.
These were important men. For many years, in New York state politics, these were The Men. Between them, they controlled the New York state legislature and a state budget of $150 billion dollars, nearly three times the national budget of Ireland. What was interesting was that the US attorney saw fit to publicise widely his role in putting these men behind bars. Political showboating? Almost certainly. The office of New York’s US Attorney has already proven to be a political launching pad for one Rudolph W. Giuliani, who’s jailing of dodgy Wall Street types won him a lot of votes with ordinary working people who wanted to see that the law applied to the mucky-mucks as well.
Does Attorney Bharara have ambitions for elected office? Who knows. But if he does, it’s not unreasonable for him to think that going after corrupt politicians might win him votes.
It’s a good job he’s not running in Ireland.
Watching the RTE Investigates report into our home-grown breed, you see the differences. First of all, it’s not the Garda or Department of Justice hunting these guys down. It’s a television station. If you google “FBI public corruption”, you get the page of the FBI that deals specifically with it, and lists out all the recent public officials convicted in recent months of corruption. In the US, if you’re a councilman or a state senator, there’s always the chance when some guy offers you a brown envelope that he’s actually an FBI agent wearing a wire.
Think Irish councillors have ever worried that the Gardai were out to get them? Put “public corruption” into the search engine on the Garda website. You get the following “You Searched for ‘corruption’ filtered by ‘all’ Pages returned ’0′ results.”
The truth is that there is no one in the Irish state, unlike in the US, who gets up in the morning and says “today I’m going to nail some corrupt so-and-so to a cross.” As with so many things in Ireland, it’s nobody’s job. Why not?
Why doesn’t Garda Commissioner O’Sullivan announce that she is setting up a dedicated unit to pursue and actively attempt to bribe Irish public officials, as the FBI (and RTE) do? Who’ll stop her? The minister? The Taoiseach? As it happens, they probably don’t have the power to stop her. But more importantly, they wouldn’t have the stones. Yeah, all across the country county councillors would be up in arms, talking about their “good names” being dragged into disrepute by the mere existence of such a unit, but so what? Would it be the worst thing in the world if every grasping sticky-fingered “what’s in it for me?” councillor had just the lightest film of sweat on their brow every time he sat down with a developer? Or when he picked up his phone?
By the way, on that note, why haven’t RTE named the councillors who refused to meet them because they felt it was inappropriate? The fact that there are councillors who actually aren’t on the make is as big a story as those who are.
Of course, it’s unlikely the Garda will take such dramatic action. The organisation is notoriously reactive. After all, according to last week’s Garda Inspectorate report they seem to be only getting around to the fact that there’s a thing called “the internet”. The one thing that would make the Garda take corruption seriously is the one thing that made the late Telecom Eireann and Dublin Bus up their game: competition. If the government outsourced the pursuit of corruption to, say, a private security company or legal firm which got paid by the number of its privately investigated cases the DPP felt able to bring to trial, then suddenly the Garda might sit up. Now there’s an idea as to how to spend Atlantic Philanthropies money.
That’s the unwritten truth we all avoid: the Garda don’t take corruption seriously because the Irish people don’t, and they work for them. Voters, as a general rule, don’t see dismissing corrupt politicians as being their job. In fact, it’s even worse. A politician who spends his time trying to clean up politics is almost seen as a time waster not doing proper local graft work. There’s also the reality, which the commissioner will be well aware of, that the Irish people are far more likely to dismiss a politician who fights corruption than one actually being corrupt. Just ask Pat O’Malley (remember him?), Joe Higgins, Jim Mitchell or Dick Spring.
Fighting corruption in Ireland is going to be like bringing in divorce, equality for women or decriminalising gay rights. One of those issues where the majority of people either have no interest or are mildly opposed to it, but is pushed by a tiny well-organised, dedicated group. Then one day you reach a tipping point and it becomes the cultural norm, and everybody wonders why we didn’t always do it this way? It’s be the tiny Social Democrats or Renua or a plucky independent who forces the big parties to finally take action. That’s the Irish way.
Previously published on the 24th January 2016 in The Times Ireland Edition.
Watching our British, and specifically English neighbours having their ongoing nervous breakdown over their relationship with the rest of Europe, we have to be concerned. To us, it’s sort of like watching Mammy and Daddy fighting, and knowing with that awareness even the youngest of children have that if the outcome is bad it’ll affect us badly too.
Having said that, it also raises an awkward question for us. As a country that is Olympic gold medal standard in ignoring awkward questions, we have to confront this one. If the Brits go, should we consider leaving the European Union too?
Put that question to the spin-the-bottle FF/FG/Labour political establishment and they’ll blurt out an automatic no. But this is done without thinking, and not because of any commitment to the cause of European integration but to a hardwired revulsion of anything that sounds like change.
As it happens, European unity is not just about World War II but about a group of small countries with similar values magnifying their power to shape the global forces that affect us, from mass migration to terrorism to international trade. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t take a dispassionate eye to what is in our national interest.
Here’s the awkward reality: yes, keeping the Brits in is in our interest. But if they leave, getting them a good deal is absolutely vital. We trade nearly €1 billion a week with them, and anything that interferes with that, from border control to tariffs to British access to the single market is a threat to our national interest. Any threat to that trade is the biggest and most likely single non-terrorist threat to our economy. In short, if our membership of the EU threatened our access to the British market, that would be a serious conundrum for us.
Then there’s our membership of the euro. There are some in the country who believe that returning to a national currency would allow us more flexibility in that we’d have nominal control over interest rates again. They’re right, of course. But we’d also have to balance our desire for appropriate domestic interest rates with the need to keep the currency shadowing both sterling and the euro. And that’s before you consider how lip-licking populist Irish politicians would look at political control of interest rates. It’s not hard to imagine them demanding that the central bank pay attention to “social justice” when setting interest rates and ending with politicians wondering why we can’t just “temporarily” print more of our new national currency.
Sorry, but I have more faith in a currency run by Mario than Mary Lou.
The big question is whether it’s enough to justify our exit? The vast majority of our FDI must regard our membership of both the euro and the single market as a key factor for investing in Ireland. Obviously along with our “Hey, Apple, keep your hand in your pocket, this round is on us!” approach to corporate taxation, but access to the single market matters. It’s certainly not for our tiny domestic market that they’re here. We haven’t even got a proper Apple store. Likewise, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy would be a shocker too, as, post Irish exit, the IFA lads point that famous rattling bowl at the Irish taxpayer and ask “Well?”
I’ve no doubt we should stay. The deciding factor for us on staying will be the same thing that can be traced all the way back to Michael Collins. Small nations need a place at the table, to be inside the room. The Brits used to think that way until the eurosceptics came up with the surreal concept that either a) the EU, and therefore the room, was going to go away, or b) the room doesn’t matter. Or there’s the even more bizarre idea that you can have as much influence in the room by not being in it, like some form of geo-political séance. Sort of “Knock once if you want a change in banana curvature regulations.”
There’s also one reason why examining Irish exit might be dangerous. It might make the rest of Europe look at what they get out of us being in the EU, with our two-faced approaches to things like abortion and neutrality and our bloody referendums. It’s true, Angela wants to keep us on board because she can scold the Greeks and point at us. But that all hinges on Irish politicians not making a future balls of the public finances. I wouldn’t be brimming with confidence on that one. This is a political class, after all, whom I suspect now regard calling in the IMF as a form of political ctrl-alt-delete button.
If someone had told the lads on Easter Monday 1916 that 100 years from then a sovereign Irish government would be sitting in the councils of Europe demanding a better deal for the Brits they’d have choked on their figrolls.
Yet the truth is that it is in the interest of Ireland that we side with them against our gallant allies in Europe on this issue.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t stop trying to slap some sense into them before the referendum. Nor will we be alone: I suspect the run up to the referendum will have the Americans and the rest of Europe imitating that scene in “Airplane” where a queue of people line up to slap sense into an hysterical passenger trying to get off the plane in mid-flight.
Still, surely we’ve come a long way. 100 years ago we would have just shot them.
Posted by Jason O on May 21, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 11th April 2016.
Here’s an interesting fact. In pretty much every recent EU treaty referendum we have had, the right to maintain low taxes for some of the biggest corporate names in the world was a key issue. All across Ireland, ordinary working people who pay nearly half their own income in taxes, went into polling stations to ensure those companies paid at most 12.5% in tax, and often only a fraction of that.
Why would they do that? Are we a nation of secret ideological Romneyites worried about the mega corporations and their right to keep their money?
The truth is, we’re smart and selfish. We recognise that those companies employ thousands of people in this country with very tasty pay packets which contribute to our taxes and get spent in our shops and restaurants. They rent and buy buildings and apartments and houses from very grateful Irish landlords, and take out mortgages from Irish banks that get giddy with excitement when employees from the world’s most famous companies come through their doors.
In short, this country is a company town. We know where and by whom our bread is buttered.
Of course, it means that we’re more conflicted than other countries are about the issue of those companies paying their proverbial “fair share” in taxation. We’re not France. We’re more Jersey or Isle of Man, a country that doesn’t want to rock the boat because they paid for the outboard motor.
And yet we still get angry, or at least pretend to when papers are leaked from Panama, or we’re told that giant companies are routing vast profits through various schemes to shield them from taxes. But is it a real affect-how-I-vote anger, or just an anger we copy from stuff we see online from the UK or US where it’s fashionable to be angry about these things?
Whether your anger is real or not, there’s a reason why you are going to have to care about this issue, and it’s this: public spending is going to continue increasing, because it has to. We live in an age where medical technology is advancing at an eye-watering rate, and with that, constantly higher public expectations. Thirty years ago a cataract or a bad hip was just a burden of old age, a cross one carried.
Now there is an expectation that the healthcare system must rectify the problem, yet another cost to the public purse which just didn’t exist in the past. If a man wasn’t cutting the mustard in the bedroom, that used to be his problem: now, with the invention of Viagra, it’s the minister for finance’s problem. All that additional medical capability prolongs life, which means that people are living longer and thus the cost of senior care is going to continue to rise too. Nursing homes aren’t cheap. State pensions are going to have to be paid for more people and for longer.
In short, it’s no longer a question of whether we want to collect higher taxes from multinationals, but having to.
It will not be politically sustainable, certainly across Europe, to tell voters that their healthcare expectations will have to be reduced because multinationals don’t want to pay taxes.
As with so many other issues, Irish politicians, like their continental counterparts, will eventually have to confront the reality that corporation tax competition, whilst a short term benefit, is reducing the tax base. Tax harmonisation across the EU, that dreaded concept, is going to have to be considered.
One can argue against a common EU corporation tax rate, and there are good arguments against, especially for countries like Ireland or Cyprus, on the outer edge of Europe. But you can also recognise that a common means of calculating corporate tax liability is going to be needed to crack down on avoidance. The Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB), which Ireland opposed as the beginning of a move towards tax harmonisation, is the agreed set of rules by which each member state levies corporate taxes, regardless of what rate is set nationally. This is now back on the table with a vengeance from the European Commission, and it isn’t going away, especially not if the Brits take their coat and leave in June.
In fact, the issue is going to get even more complicated. After all, even if the EU were to agree a common corporate tax policy, there’s nothing to stop those same companies just basing themselves outside of Europe.
That must surely then open a whole new front in the debate. Is it acceptable that we give access to Europe’s greatest asset, our 500m consumers, and then let them give us the two fingers when it comes to contributing towards maintaining that market?
Because let’s not forget: yes, they can move their profits offshore, but they can’t move their consumers, our people. We’re the prize. Is it possible, for example, for the EU to devise a special sales tax specifically targeted at the products of companies that aren’t morally tax compliant in Europe? A tax on, say, a certain brand of coffee shop which then gives its’ morally tax compliant (often small business) competitors an actual price advantage?
In short, you can hide all you want in Grand Cayman, but when we start disrupting your relationship with the people who actually buys your product, maybe then you’ll want to talk with the European taxman?
Posted by Jason O on May 19, 2016 in Irish Politics
, Not quite serious.
World War Z zombie outbreak: Invariably, the government would hold off giving the order to shoot infected citizens for fear of huge compensation claims, until it was too late and society was overwhelmed. Also, the attorney general would probably rule that the undead are covered under the unborn protection clause in the constitution. Either way we’re screwed. In the middle of the crisis a significant number of TDs would continue lobbying for new roofs for local GAA clubs even as zombies were eating the faces off their constituents. Fianna Fail would point out that the world never ended when they were in office.
Armageddon Earth threatening meteor: The Irish government would almost certainly attempt to avoid making any financial contribution to the planet saving exercise. Curiously, we would be bitterly disappointed at the refusal of some other nation/entity to compensate us for the damage caused by the meteor, with large numbers of Irish people believing that Ireland suffered more harshly than any other nation. The Irish language lobby, pointing out that the giant tidal wave that destroyed Connaught also destroyed a large chunk of the Gaeltacht, would call for increased Irish language funding.
Independence Day alien invasion: As above, with the exception that Richard Boyd Barrett would protest at the US’s destruction of the alien invasion fleet as a racist and imperialist act against a misunderstood culture. Bord Failte would quickly prepare, just in case, proof that the aliens forefathers came from Belmullet.
Vampire outbreak: an outbreak of vampirism would be dealt with in one of two ways by the Irish state. The first would be to round them up, put them in institutions, sexually assault them and then apologise, paying compensation.
The second would depend on how well organised the vampires were. If they registered to vote, deputies would be afraid to challenge them for fear of losing the vampire vote, and before you know it we’d all be required to make compulsory blood donations, and the importation of garlic would be highly taxed (cough). A state board would be created to advance vampirism, and it would be made compulsory in schools, and although everybody would be required to become a vampire by the time they do their leaving, most people wouldn’t but we’d all pretend we were. Before long we’d be lobbying the EU for vampirism to be made compulsory across Europe, and bitching about the Germans when elite Bundeswehr vampire hunters arrive and wipe them out. Once again, we’d seek compensation.
Posted by Jason O on May 14, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Originally published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 18th April 2016.
There’s an old saying that the two most interesting subjects in the world are your own money, and other people’s sex lives. It’s a dated observation, because in the modern age, other people’s money, how much they have, and how they spend it or hide it, is just as fascinating. Amidst all the roaring and shouting about the Panama Papers and David Cameron’s tax affairs and the jaw dropping revelation that the leader of the Tories is quite comfortable there was a nugget of truth worth considering.
Politics would probably benefit if everybody’s, yes, everybody’s, income and tax paid was online for all to see.
I’ll just pause here to let you explode in anger, as the great majority of Irish people no doubt will on reading such a preposterous downright dirty red communist proposition.
Outrageous? Possibly. Infringement of privacy? Definitely. But think about the transformative effect it would have on politics. And not the way you think either. See, people assume that it would be the left that would benefit, revealing the vast bounties been taken home by the nation’s evil moustache-twirling boss class. Yeah, some businesspeople would be revealed to be making serious bread. But so would the heads of various NGOs and yes, poverty-focussed charities and trades unions too. Would getting that information clearly into the public domain, by law, really be such a terrible thing?
But the big reveal would be something that the centre-right have been saying for years and that nobody believes. That the rich actually pay large amounts of filthy lucre in tax, and it would be there, in black and white, for all to see.
Yes, you’d see that certain individuals are claiming the privilege of an Irish passport whilst paying little into the national coffers, but it’s a good thing to know that. For too often it’s been very easy for the alphabet left to paint the country with two super-broad strokes: the rich, and the rest of us. This would highlight a very awkward (for them) point: that a large tranche of the rich, the well-off and the comfortable are not jet-setting calendar-counting avoidance aficionados but people who do pay large amounts of money in tax. People who, and you don’t hear this often, despite being worth a few bob are just as irritated as Comrade Murphy TD at tax avoidance by their financial betters. They’re irritated because unlike the far left, they actually press the online banking send button every October which puts large amounts of their hard earned cash into the lip licking maw of the Revenue. After all, they never stop complaining that they pay ridiculous amounts in tax anyway, so why not let their fellow citizens verify for themselves, and see that it is the actual truth?
It’s true that you can point an accusing finger at a successful businessman who is paying himself a very tasty salary. But when, right beside that salary column will be the huge ball of cash he’s putting into the social welfare and health and education system, the pointed finger loses some of its accusatory power. And if he’s only paying a suspiciously low fraction in tax, then this becomes an annual media and public-led opportunity for the voters and opposition to savage the government on tax avoidance. Every single year.
It’s not just the tax-paying high earners who could benefit, or indeed the reveal of their contribution to society being something the hard left should worry about. Wait until the ordinary PAYE workers see not how much their neighbours pay, but more often the fact that many pay little or nothing. There’s nothing more likely to turn your ordinary working joe into a raving Thatcherite than the idea that he’s breaking his proverbial doing overtime to put dinner on the table whilst that mooching waster next door is wandering down to the shops in his pyjamas, on our hero’s dime. That’s what terrifies the People’s Front of Killiney: the possibility that Sean Citizen might look at Michael O’Leary’s enormous tax bill, then look at the wastrel next door, and decide he has more in common with O’Leary.
After all, don’t both of them get up out of bed in the morning and go out to pay their way in the world?
Is it practical? Probably not. There’d be war and every spurious excuse from it being a charter for axe murderers to travel the country bashing wealthy grannies to indignant pleas for the nanny state to be told to shove off and mind its own business. There’s also the ultimate Irish fear that all across the land there are Lady Mucks going around putting on airs and graces about their family status that might not be justified. All are not bad reasons not to do it. But the benefits, the breaking down of the wall between class grievance and the reality of who pays what, that can only be for the good, surely?
Perhaps, for example, we could commit to do it in, say, three years time, with a promise that nothing before that date would be revealed, giving people time to get their affairs in order, even sell off assets and the rest before nosy neighbours (or more likely, relatives) get their excited fingers onto a keyboard.
Of course, all this assumes we’d ever get it past learned colleagues down the Supreme Court…
Posted by Jason O on Apr 25, 2016 in Irish Politics
The first election campaign I was ever directly involved in was the 1991 local elections, where I canvassed for Jeananne Crowley in the Pembroke Ward, a seat I’d contest myself in the 1999 elections. After that, I campaigned in local, general, European and by-elections, and in a number of referendums. And that’s not counting the internal party elections I campaigned in.
Between 1991 and 2005, when I resigned from the Progressive Democrats, I experienced a fair bit of Irish politics, and came across what I would regard as fairly solid general rules of Irish politics. They are general, there are always exceptions, but broadly speaking I believe they’re true:
1. With the possible exception of Sinn Fein and the Alphabet Left, and maybe in by-elections, there is no longer such a thing as party machines in the traditional sense. Successful candidates have to effectively build their own teams of, for the most part, personal loyalists. Many if not most of the party members who turned up to vote at the convention will not end up knocking on doors.
2. Irish people vote for people over ideas nearly always. People are far more likely to vote for a person they like but disagree with politically over a person they agree with but dislike.
3. It is possible to be interested in the politics of ideas, or the politics of winning elections, and never have anything to do with the other. Indeed it is getting more and more likely.
4. The one characteristic a successful candidate absolutely must have over everything else is physical stamina, and a willingness to keep knocking on doors and talking to people over and over again. It is possible for a stupid candidate to be elected again and again. A lazy candidate will probably only be elected once, and only because he/she is related to someone.
5. The lack of knowledge displayed by voters, and their pride in that lack of knowledge, about how the political system works, and how decisions are made, will never cease to amaze you.
6. By international standards, it is relatively easy for a small group to change things in Ireland if it has determination, courage and organisation. The failure to bring change has usually been because of a lack of one of those three factors. The Provisional IRA and the Progressive Democrats proved that.
7. Irish people take a masochistic comfort in believing that an uncontrollable force, be it the Brits, the IMF, or potatoes, is responsible for their woes, and are comfortable with people knowingly lying to them. No race on Earth savours perceived betrayal and victimhood as much as the Irish. Our national headwear should be a leather “Pulp Fiction” gimp mask.
8. “The Rich” are people who earn €15k more than you per annum. “The Ordinary People” are your friends and family.
9. The fact that we ask candidates the same questions in both local and national elections explains a lot about why Ireland is the way it is today.
10. Many Irish think that the United States consists solely of New York, Boston and Chicago, and cannot comprehend that there are a large number of Americans with little love, and in some cases, hatred for the Irish.
11. Nor can many of us believe that there are huge sections of the world who have little or no idea who we are. In short, “everyone” does not love the Irish.
12. A large proportion of the population have no real idea how government services are funded.
13. Irish public bodies, including the houses of the Oireachtas, exist primarily to protect the terms and conditions of their employees. Their secondary function, if they have spare time, is the task for which they were nominally created, like driving buses, governing the country, that sort of thing.
14. Given the level of centralisation in the country, if activity in the Dail and Seanad chambers and county council chambers were suspended indefinitely, it would quite possibly be years before the public would detect any detrimental effect on the level of services provided by the state as a result. In fact, activity on the floor of the Finnish and German parliaments would have a much more immediate effect on us.
15. The legal system has the same standing to large chunks of the political establishment as witchcraft has to many Africans. If a lawyer says something of positive benefit cannot be done for legal reasons, most Irish politicians surrender immediately, in many instances glad to have a de facto supernatural reason for not doing something.
16. It is almost impossible to find a defender of the Seanad or the European Parliament who would not quite fancy being a member of either body if no better offer were available.
17. There are people who genuinely believe that Ireland would be a better country if there were no private sector rich people living in it. Provided they left behind the big giant “make me rich” machines that every rich person is issued with at birth.
18. There are two conflicting forces in the Irish soul: one believes that sending a turkey in a shopping trolley to an international competition is “gas” and the rest of Europe are dry shites for not voting for him. The other is that feeling we got the moment the music stopped when we first saw Riverdance during the Eurovision. What we settle for, and what we could be.
19. In Irish politics, often the solution is more unpopular than the problem.
20. Irish people abroad will tolerate and even champion stuff they’d never accept in Ireland. Like paying for water.
21. The Irish mind can happily hold conflicting opinions at the same time. Like being neutral but having a US base in Shannon. Or wanting to defend the unborn, but only on the basis of geography.
Posted by Jason O on Apr 19, 2016 in Irish Politics
The Labour Party, God love it, is a creature of habit. Vastly overhyping its voter expectations, it enters government, bitterly disappoints them, and gets clobbered at the next election. It then stumbles into opposition for a dark period of recrimination, infighting and finger pointing, before emerging out the other end and doing it all again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Here’s a thought: for the first time ever, Labour has a fascinating opportunity. The people who voted Labour in 2016 are the hard-core pragmatists, the people who are loyal for whatever reason, or actually liked what Labour did in government. Barring Labour going loopy, they’re disappointment proof.
Now there’s a chance for Labour to build new voters not based on promises but on actual delivery in government. After all, the Labour Party’s seven TDs are far more valuable (read vital) to Fine Gael than Labour’s previous 39 TDs.
If Labour are smart it can look for real concrete demands off Fine Gael, solid deliveries that are all bonuses because nobody ever expected Labour to be able to do them. From a referendum on the 8th amendment to political reform to childcare to housing, Labour has the ability to finally be the party it always says it wants to be.
Not the disappointing over-promisers, but the party that surprises everyone by actually getting good stuff done.
You know who has been through this? The Progressive Democrats in 1989. They lost over half their seats, then entered government and actually gained seats at the following election. Having lost its easily disappointed voters, the PDs then built a new following based on their delivery in government, remaining one of the few parties in Irish politics to actually gain seats coming out of government.
There’s an idea. But first Labour members must resist the urge to do what Labour members always do after being ejected from government…
Posted by Jason O on Apr 17, 2016 in Irish Politics
And so we approach what looks like the next step in Fianna Fail’s return to its place as the dominant party in Irish politics. It could take a mere few months, or possible two or three years, but let’s be under no illusion. Fianna Fáil intend to use the bloodied but still breathing Fine Gael as a human shield to get them to another election as fast as is politically decent. They’ll play the national interest and stability card for a while, just waiting for FG to suggest something that FF can be suitably morally indignant about, and then it’s off to face the people and the discarding of the then useless cadaver of FG.
Normal business is restored: FF the largest party and in coalition with one or two small but rational parties and FG back to their role as the perennial losers of Irish politics, the posh rich kid who always gets his comeuppance from the scrappy kid from the wrong side of town in countless movies.
Someone once said to me that the problem with Fine Gael is that they’re that lethal mixture of being both arrogant and stupid. You can survive by being arrogant but clever, or by being dim but likeable, but FG manage to be neither. They seem to be the party who is always surprised to lose elections because nobody, from their tailor to their housekeeper to their stablehand ever admits to voting Fianna Fáil.
Once again, they’re about to fall in the trap. They’ll finally get Enda back in with FF collaboration and then suddenly they’ll see themselves, once again, as The Government, and try to carry on as if nothing has changed, right up to the moment they look on gob-dawed as Michael Martin forms the next stable secure government.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The key to FG’s survival is not to neuter FF’s power but to enhance it, and do so publicly. Enda should announce a weekly legislative cooperation meeting where he will publicly work with FF on which legislation goes through the house, and what it looks like. His team should be pulling out every Fianna Fáil policy document and private members bill from the last five years and pushing what can be used, publicly identifying them as Fianna Fail’s good ideas. He should be consulting Fianna Fáil publicly on state appointments and very publicly appointing Fianna Fáil nominees. In short, the objective of Fine Gael should be to destroy the notion that Fianna Fáil are the opposition standing up to the government, and making sure that it is clear to all that Fianna Fáil are part of the governing majority and share in its decisions.
Are Fine Gael smart enough to pull it off? They’ll be helped by the fact that Sinn Fein will certainly want to push that line too. But it will involve FG showing humility, with the government basically refusing to give FF any ammunition to bring down the government.
That’s the real challenge, because humble is not something FG does well.