Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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When making choices becomes unpopular.

Posted by Jason O on Sep 1, 2017 in Irish Politics

oil-rigPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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The Right to Housing might not be as straightforward as you would think.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 9, 2017 in Irish Politics

container housingPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

There’s a standard dance to be performed when a left-wing activist wishes to promote the idea of a constitutional right to housing, which reared its head once again for discussion last week.

He or she will tell tales of the legitimate hardship of many, wrapped up in the cloak of outrage of What Sort of Country Are We? Then lob in Will Somebody Please Think Of The Children, and then, just for good measure, it’ll all be drizzled with a good dose of The Men of 1916 and Was It For This? There’ll be plenty of emotion and finger-pointing, all with the suggestion that once it is a right, that’s it: problem solved.

As it happens, I agree with a right to housing. As with healthcare, the reality is that a capitalist free-market society can only exist with broad consent, and you won’t get that consent without people having decent homes to live in. A shortage of affordable housing of an acceptable standard is a serious threat to confidence in the capitalist system, and smart centre-right politicians including Fianna Fail and the Tories, from World War Two onwards recognised this. That recognition helped keep those parties in power for a generation. Shelter isn’t a privilege; it’s both a right and a necessity. If capitalism isn’t capable of providing shelter for all, then we should all be socialists.

What annoys me isn’t the actual goal of a right to housing, but the fact that the commitment to delivery is so wafer thin by the alphabet left. Many on the left who do the right to housing dance are similar to those who protest against nuclear power and in favour of renewable energy.

Right up to the moment some company tries to build a wind farm.

Then they’ll either vanish or else do the usual support for the concept but object to the actual details of the practice. They’ll be first up to wax lyrical about housing, but any sort of local opposition, even to publicly-built housing, and they’ll find some reason to join the crowd outside shouting at the county chief executive who wants to actually build it. The alphabet left don’t do spine. They’re terrified of the mob turning on them, and so pretend to lead it, a trickle of tell-tale nervous sweat running down their backs as they keep a wary eye on its direction.

They don’t do courage of conviction.  

There’s an old and beautifully-named concept in Marxism called the “transitional demand”. It’s the idea of a far left group issuing a demand for something which they know can’t be achieved, or privately don’t really want to be achieved. A right to housing is an old classic, suitably big but vague enough to be kicked about without going into the specifics of where to build, what to build, and how to pay for it. If they’d been around in 1916, they’d have been in the mob screaming at the volunteers being led out, not for rising up against the British, but for not implementing a universal healthcare and building programme whilst being the provisional government for a week.

Even if we could get the proverbial bricks and mortar details together as to how to build all this needed housing, what specific right would we put before the people in a constitutional referendum? What would be the wording?

Every citizen shall have a right to housing?

Every citizen? So this doesn’t apply to refugees or EU citizens or non-Irish? Is that a hate-crime?

OK. Every resident of Ireland shall have a right to housing. 

But what do we mean by housing? Is a hotel room housing? A Bed & Breakfast?

I suspect the housing rights people would disagree.

Every resident of Ireland shall have a right to non-temporary housing.

Now we’re getting somewhere. But a question. What’s to stop, say, a Times columnist tootling down to the High Court and demanding a free house?

Ah, but you fancy-pants columnists wouldn’t accept what was offered to you, and the danger you could be miles away from your nearest smashed avocado toast depot, says you.

So a person would have to accept what was offered to fulfil their right to housing? Isn’t that actually a reduction in one’s current rights, where one can refuse a number of offers of council housing?

Of course, the High Court would say that I could exercise my right to housing without state intervention, which would be true. But wouldn’t that then recognise, constitutionally, the concept of a means test? That the state had not only a right, but perhaps even an obligation to ensure that by giving a limited resource, a home, to an individual who may well be able to contribute to housing themselves that it was in fact depriving another lower income individual of the exercise of their right to housing?

Does that not mean that the state would actually be obliged to set variable rents based on an individual’s income, be it salary or social welfare? Couldn’t that oblige the state, therefore, to even increase rents on existing state tenants by court order, to free up revenue to build more housing to vindicate other unhoused people’s right to housing?

A constitutional obligation on the state to means test? Not on Paul Murphy’s watch, God damn it! Out comes the red pen again:

Every resident of Ireland shall have a right to non-temporary housing without regard to their income.

Now, literally, everybody can demand a free house. Air BnB will be delighted, and the housing waiting lists will soar as every South Dublin rugby-playing kid stands in the queue of the housing rights agency waiting for the keys to their free gaff, as Dad shouts at Matt Cooper inside the Seven Series outside. The official will peer out the window and grind his teeth, knowing that Sebastian in front of him here has as much constitutional right to a free house as the next fella, despite his father bringing in the big bucks as Chairman of Anglo-Ukrainian Bank. Dad’s solicitor at Countem, Foldem and Trouserem, or rather, his junior Arabella whom Sebastian quite fancies, has filled in the paperwork immaculately, unlike the poor fella who is in the queue before him who was never great at the old reading and writing and so has been sent home to try to fill the forms in, moving to the bottom of the housing list once again.

Once again, the Irish alphabet left will have put another nice tasty taxpayer funded number into the pockets of the educated Irish upper middle classes. In the words of the late Claude Rains: I’m shocked! Shocked!

All a load of nonsense, right? Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, this country, to be fair, has absolutely no experience whatsoever of what was thought to be a relatively simple constitutional amendment being inserted into Bunreacht na hEireann and for the thing to go haywire, being interpreted to mean something completely different by the courts.

Nope. That’s never happened before.

I look forward to an elderly Paul Murphy coming out of retirement to campaign to repeal the right to housing after it makes the government fund a chateau in Provence for Michael O’Leary after he goes to court to vindicate his right to housing.

Because we never said that right had to be exercised in Ireland, did we?

This thing could just run and run.  

 

 
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Should Fianna Fail go north?

Posted by Jason O on Aug 6, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition
Former Westminster MP Eamonn DeValera

Former Westminster MP Eamonn DeValera

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition

Crossing the border must be a very strange experience for the SDLP. North of it, they’re a dying party, a party of the past, a party that one looks at and thinks one good cold snap in the winter and half their membership are off to that great count centre in the sky. It’s probably an unfair image, but that’s the image. Images of the SDLP on the telly are those of John Hume in the 1970s and maybe with David Trimble and Bono from 19 years ago. Go on, I dare you: name the last three leaders of the SDLP. There was Gerry Fitt, John Hume, then Mark Durkan, then…that woman? Your man with the head? Was there another woman? No? I had to look them up. If you want to know how far they’ve fallen, consider that in the Northern Assembly elections in 1998 the SDLP came first in first preference over every other party.  

Now there’s talk of perhaps a merger with Fianna Fail, and when they come south, you could hardly blame them. Down here they’re welcomed onto the platform of a Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour ard fheis, and the response is crackling. Standing ovations. Smiles. People nodding approvingly at each other. Because the SDLP are the good guys. When those other fellas were taking up guns and balaclavas the SDLP stood firm and by the ballot. As we did down here. They’re our sort of people.

Could Fianna Fail assimilate them as the opening bid for the party’s entry into the politics of the north? It’s a high stakes gamble. Don’t forget, it won’t be going up against the DUP or UUP looking for their votes, at least, not initially. What is Fianna Fail’s pitch to nationalist or republican voters? In short, unlike the SDLP, it can tell nationalists in the north that it has been, along with Fine Gael, the legitimate leading voice of the Irish people in totality. Sinn Fein just can’t claim that, and northern voters know that too. Quite simply, Fianna Fail has more power than Sinn Fein, in Dublin, in London, in Brussels, in Washington. What’s the Sinn Fein argument against Fianna Fail candidates? No to Dublin rule? Go home to where you came from? Get back across the border and mind your own business? Don’t forget, in the North Sinn Fein are the establishment party who seem to have been in government forever.

Fianna Fail is a populist catch-all party. In its heyday it was almost unique in western democracy as the party that won a plurality of the vote in every single socio-economic group and geographical region. The idea that Fianna Fail could look at half the electorate of Northern Ireland and just write them off goes against the party’s driving credo, There Be Voters In Them Thar Hills!

Could Fianna Fail even pick up soft unionist transfers? Short term, probably not, but picture the long term. Fianna Fail back in government in the south and Prince Charles or even King William and Queen Kate visiting the republic and suddenly nice respectable unionist businessmen and their wives getting invites from the local Fianna Fail candidate to come to the Aras and meet their wonderful majesties. A lovely day is had by all and she looked so beautiful and the President of Eire was there too and it was all just lovely and we met Mr Martin of Fianna Fail who introduced us to his majesty and it was all very tasteful and he seems like a very nice man.

Don’t forget, that’s what Fianna Fail does. It’s like Al Pacino in that film where he plays the devil. They figure out what you want, and unlike the other fellas, it’s been absolutely ages since Fianna Fail shot anybody. That’s not to say there won’t be challenges. What should Fianna Fail do if it wins a seat in the Westminster parliament? Not taking the seat seems, well, silly. But it also puts the party in an awkward position if it’s in government in the Dail and facing the British government in the Commons. But, as Dev discovered with the oath in 1927, Fianna Fail is nothing if not very bendy on these issues. They can respectfully renounce the oath before taking it, and follow the Scottish Parliament tradition of pledging allegiance to the people who sent them there. Fianna Fail can also announce, to avoid causing friction between Dublin and London, that they will only vote on issues affecting Northern Ireland. Which will allow Fianna Fail to not have a policy on NATO or Trident, which would be handy.  

There’s also the other issue about the DUP vs Fianna Fail in Westminster. The DUP are in serious danger, as the dominant party of Ulster unionism, of equating Northern Irish unionism with keeping the hated Tories in power. Juxtapose that with a few nice gay-friendly charming young male and female Fianna Fail MPs being all nice and respectful. That’s the thing about the DUP: they may finally convince a large section of England that if it’s unionism in Northern Ireland that keeps the Tories in, maybe that Jeremy Corbyn is right about getting out of Ireland all together. The sheer comedy value of the more the English see Ulster unionism through a DUP prism, they less they feel committed to it would be, let’s be honest, delicious.

Ideally, Fianna Fail MPs would be at their most comfortable sitting with the SNP, who’d probably be delighted to have them, but that would rub the Dublin-London relationship just a little too much the wrong way. But after getting using to pronouncing Fianna Fail, and the inevitable Tory MPs rhyming it with sail and thinking they’re the first guy to come up with that, the DUP might find having Fianna Fail there to be deeply troubling. A Fianna Fail presence would kill the idea that a united Ireland is handing over good decent Brits to some backward land. If anything, I suspect quite a few Brits listening to Fianna Fail MPs espousing the party’s moderate conservative but let’s not get weird about it pragmatism might even think they’d like to vote for them.     

To cap it all, wouldn’t it be funny if the UK introduced a Kevin O’Higgins style law, as occurred in the Free State after the murder of the justice minister, saying that you have to take your seat or lose it. That if Sinn Fein don’t take the seats, they could be awarded to the runner up. The Tories won’t do it now, for obvious reasons, but at some stage in the future you could imagine a Fianna Fail foreign minister whispering it into the ear of his British counterpart. It could put Sinn Fein in a pickle. Yes, they could go to Westminster and do a “Paisley and the Pope” and make a big song and dance. But let’s not forget: Sinn Fein have two audiences. That carry-on will go down well with their core support in the north.

But in the south, that goes against Sinn Fein’s pitch as the not-Anglophobic party of the progressive future. In short, Fianna Fail heading north will be a game of three dimensional chess, with every move having the potential to have unforeseen consequences on one of the other boards.

 

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

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

blofeldPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

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.

 
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All hail our new robot Taoiseach.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 15, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

robotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

“Colossus: The Forbin Project”, is a great science fiction movie from the late 1960s which is a favourite of mine. It tells the story of a scientist, Charles Forbin, who builds a supercomputer for the president of the United States. The computer, Colossus, will control America’s nuclear arsenal under the thinking that if every country knows that the US can’t be psychologically bluffed anymore, they won’t dare attack it. Nobody thinks to test the damn thing before they turn it on, and when they do, Colossus announces that things would be much better if it ran everything, and it means everything. It then suggests that anyone who disagrees with it might like to discuss the matter with the business end of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Much hijinks ensue.

I’m reminded of the movie every time I read or hear a discussion about technology and robots replacing human jobs,  which is beginning to happen so often that I suspect it’s the robots writing the pieces.  But every time I see it, I always think an Irish Colossus would work quite well, if only because it would blow the whistle on so much of the spoofery of our elected leaders.

Take the latest observation from the Healy-Rae Party on the matter of the impairing effect or not of three pints of Guinness. To his credit, Danny Healy-Rae is not much different from many other backbenchers in both houses, shooting their mouths off looking for attention. The country looks over in their direction, rolls its eyes, hopes that the BBC or the late night US comedians don’t notice, and we all carry on about our business.

We’re missing a trick here.

See, if we had our very own automated Colossus-like RoboTaoiseach, it could approach the whole situation differently. First of all, it would recognise that Deputy Healy-Rae has been sent to the Dail by the people of Kerry, and those good people have a right to be heard.

Then it could maybe rapidly telephone poll the good deputy’s flock. Do they actually want to be able to get behind the wheel of their cars with a few jars on-board? If half of them back up their elected representative, RoboTaoiseach could then announce a pilot scheme, where drink driving thresholds in Kerry could be reduced for six months to see what happens. Finally, RoboTaoiseach could organise checkpoints along the Kerry border to ensure that the experiment doesn’t accidentally spill, pardon the pun, into the rest of the country.

We then sit back and watch. Maybe it works fine. Maybe he’s right, and the issue of late night rural transport is resolved with only minor issues. Or maybe late night Kerry turns in “Mad Max in Killarney” and we’re stacking up the bodies, all victims of The Healy-Rae Law, which of course RoboTaoiseach will naturally call it. Credit where it’s due.

Either way, we learn a valuable lesson.  Firstly, that the people of a county and the person they send to Dublin will be listened to.

Secondly, imagine the wave of sheer terror that would sweep across our politicos if they thought that RoboTaoiseach would actually attempt to at least test drive every attention seeking utterance they made. Even worse, making sure the voters knew that the latest wheeze was the initiative of senator X or deputy Y.

Ah, but they’re a wily bunch, you say. They’ll just keep calling for more spending on things.

A demand for more money for Bus Eireann workers from Deputy X? Sure. No problem.

When RoboTaoiseach deducts an extra €1.50 a week from every PAYE workers’ payslip, and deducts €1.50 from every pensioner’s weekly payment, and proudly declares it the Deputy X Bus Eireann Tax to build up the fund to deliver on his demand, we might see a change of heart.

Scrap the water charges? Easy-peasy: here’s the Deputy Murphy General Taxation Water Levy as ordered.

Across the land politicians would start sweating every time a microphone was put under their nose for fear that RoboTaoiseach might hear them and try to implement whatever they spew out, consequences and all.

All that guff about reforming the Seanad and neutrality and a right to housing? Watch the looks of sheer horror on their faces as RoboTaoiseach starts reading through Fianna Fail and Fine Gael manifestos and actually implementing what’s in them.

Watch RoboTaoiseach, listening to a rural politician complain about poor mobile phone service in his parish start assembling a mast to resolve the issue, and then take the deputy to task l on the floor of the house when the same deputy objects to masts being built in the parish.

There’d be political trousers destroyed everywhere.

Eventually though you could see Irish politicians come to love RoboTaoiseach the same way they love the county manager system. They’d almost certainly end up being delighted at being able to go home to the parish and nod sagely at their disappointed constituents.

“Sure look it,” they’d say, eyes darting around to make sure there was no RoboTaoiseach drone hovering overhead listening out for rogue political promises.

“Of course I want to get the county billions without paying any taxes. This parish deserves nothing less,” he’d whisper.

“But that bloody robot up in Dublin…”

Just in case you’re wondering, this column was not written by a robot…was not written by a robot…was not written…

 
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We don’t really want a well-run country.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 1, 2017 in Irish Politics

Previously posted in The Times Irish Edition about 2 years ago. I’m reposting because I think it gets to the nub of many of our problems. 

Almost every week one of those head shaking fist clenching what-sort-of-country-are-we issues charges to the top of the national attention span. This week it was a homeless family sleeping on the streets of Dublin. Last week it was the size of apartments being built in Dublin. A few weeks ago it was people on trollies in A&E.

The response is always the same. Bloody politicians. If they’d only give a damn or stop counting their expenses for five minutes we could get this thing fixed. If they weren’t so out of touch. If they’d only care for five minutes about what The Ordinary People want, we’d all be grand.

Here’s the thing: Irish politicians are painfully in touch with what The Ordinary People want. Say what you will about TDs, they can be corrupt, two-faced, stupid, bigoted, but the one thing they can’t be is lazy. If you as a sitting deputy don’t pay constant attention, through regular contact with your constituents, you will lose your seat. There have been a handful of exceptions, nearly all in Dublin South. But the rule stands. Irish politicians as a bunch lie awake at night worrying about what their constituents are worrying about. Not just that. They’re a remarkably flexible bunch when it comes to winning votes too. If there is a thing that will make it more likely that you’ll give them your first preference vote, they’ll do it. Whether it’s a new policy or even possibly sexually pleasuring you, if, in their mind it seriously increases the chance of the scratch on the day, they’ll seriously consider it.

Which is why A&E and urban planning and homeless service provision is the way it is. Not only will those issues not win them votes when they fix them, but the actual act of fixing may cost them votes. It’s the product of the Irish silo mind, the inability to only see the issue you care about and none of the benefits or costs attached to that specific issue.

Take A&E for example. Supposing a plan is put in front of Leo which will ensure that every person who attends A&E will get a proper bed if needed, and get through the process in two hours or less. Great news, you’d think. But as our dashing, reforming minister reads the report he realises that the cost of making the plan work is to radically change the working conditions, hours, etc  of nurses, and not in a good Bertie Ahern There’s A Few Quid For Your Trouble kind of way either.

Now he has a political decision. If he implements it, he could cost his party the actual votes of furious nurses, their families, and those odd people in the country who believe nurses can never ever do wrong, possibly because they sub-consciously associate them with nuns. But, on the plus side of his political balance sheet, there’ll be the votes of the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of voters grateful that finally one of their elected leaders has shown the leadership to fix the perennial A&E trollies crisis.

Except there isn’t. If Leo fixed A&E there’d hardly be any votes in it at all, because that’s not how Irish voters vote. They vote, for the most part, in anger or for local bucko who got your granny up the list for her new knee after she had that fall and her in her 83rd year. Reward a party for a job well done? Not in this country because there’s always something to be furious about. Just listen to Joe.

It’s almost counterintuitive, but there are more votes to be had in not fixing problems. You don’t mobilise the vested interest against you, who will actually allocate preferences on the issue. Same with homelessness. Hardly anybody will vote on how a politician deals with this issue. But try and build a homeless shelter at the end of their street and see how quickly it affects your first preference vote. Proper urban planning? Same again. The number of people who vote on the issue will be in the dozens, and they all probably know Fintan O’Toole personally. Safer to do nothing.

The truth is that our electoral system, based on small geographical areas, is almost purpose built to prevent national or strategic issues from being discussed at election time. Maybe there are a few thousand people across the country who care passionately about proper planning of our cities, but under the current system their votes are dissipated across dozens of constituencies and rendered harmless. If we had some sort of national list system it might be a different story, but we haven’t nor will we ever.

Ireland is arguably one of the most effective democracies in the world, because our TDs do have a de facto window into the soul of the Irish people and often see what the people really want. They didn’t want to bail out the banks, comes the angry shout from the jutting chinned hipster at the back with the “Corbyn!” badge. No, but even behind that what the really wanted was stability, and that’s what they got.

Because that’s the real ability of a successful politician: not to listen to what they say they want, which is nearly always said for the consumption of their peers, but to know what they feel, what they really want.

Mouthing off about social justice whilst trousering tax cuts. That’s the real Irish voter soul on display.

 
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The left are now the status quo conservatives.

Posted by Jason O on Jun 25, 2017 in Irish Politics, Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Harold Wilson TimePreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

In 1963 Harold Wilson, then leader of the British Labour Party, made a famous speech where he contrasted the then governing Tories with Labour. He painted the government as a party of the past, and described a future Labour government shaping Britain in the “white heat” of a scientific and technological revolution. Wilson would later write about replacing the cloth cap with the laboratory coat as the uniform of the British working class.

As with many things about Harold Wilson, the hyperbole struggled to match the reality of him in government. But what was interesting was the fact that Labour, as in 1945, was the party of new ideas. The left stood for change, the right the party of the rotten status quo. Across Europe, with the SPD in Germany in the 1960s, or Mitterand’s election to the French presidency in 1981, the left were the parties of progress.

What’s striking today is how, from Ireland through the UK to France and elsewhere, the left are now the party of resistance to logical change.

Consider the attitude across Europe of left parties to raising the retirement age. Almost universally there is opposition, early retirement now seen as a totem that must be protected. This despite the fact that the current retirement band, from 50 to 65, takes no account of the increase in life expectancy. It’s not impossible now for someone who takes early retirement at 50 to live beyond 100 and therefore have spent most of their life retired.

That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons for early retirement. Brickies, firefighters and miners all lead working lives which could leave them physically in rag order in a way many office workers will never be. There have to be exceptions. But what’s striking is the refusal of many on the left to confront the reality. That being 65 now is not the same as being 65 in our grandfathers’ time.

Many of the parties of the left, who actively demand more public spending, then refuse to support pension reform which is needed to generate the very revenue required to fund the spending they call for.

It’s almost impossible to find a party of the left in Europe that has any new ideas about how to manage change. Instead, opposition to free trade, Uber and flexible employment laws is in danger of becoming the standard response, not because they think this will make things better but because they literally have no other ideas.

The left has now become the party of the blacksmith, the gas-lamp lighter, the town crier and the  guy who walks in front of cars with a red flag.

What’s most depressing is that now more than ever we need a strong left. Technological change is about to bring a huge challenge to the amount of adequately paid work available compared to the pool of jobseekers. Maybe public works programmes, or a universal basic income will be necessary. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like the left, paralysed by a dirth of new ideas and a Corbynist paranoia of betrayal towards those who do confront the old sacred cows isn’t up to it.

The refusal of the left to consider the inconsiderable could end up strangling the left through simple atrophy. In the UK and France the traditional left is running on the usual “free stuff” platforms and still losing elections. Because they’re just not credible.

Take the minimum wage. It’s not inconceivable that if a country were to introduce a universal basic income, it could make sense to then abolish the minimum wage to allow for the creation of the flexible “gig economy” type jobs that would top up UBI. But can anyone imagine the current left even countenancing that on principle? Even if the evidence emerged that it created more opportunities in a rapidly-automating economy with a labour surplus? To even consider it would lead to denunciations of being a political Judas.     

The problem with the European left is that it has gone from being a dynamic flexible force for change into a rigid defender of status quos and fetishes. It does not see the modern world and globalisation as a force to be harnessed and managed but something to be feared and hidden from, behind borders and tariff barriers. Even though these are very old ideas that barely worked in their day and simply don’t apply in an age where many products have no actual physical form.

There has got to be something learned from the fact that the left have actually gone backwards during the greatest crisis of capitalism in living history.

Having said that, there is a model for the modern left. Consider that the welfare state in both Ireland and Canada was not built as much by the left as the pragmatic centre and centre-right. Despite hysterical finger-pointing by the left, Theresa May, who is not seen as an extremist outside of Corbynista Labour, has that potential too. To make the Tories the British Fianna Fail, a party that trims and bends between aspiration on one side and support for social welfare on the other.

Outrageous to suggest that? Perhaps.

But remember: it’s the voters who decide where the mainstream is. 

 
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20 Years Later: Ireland 2037.

News Future logoPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Memo to the new Taoiseach.

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

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No prizes for guessing which one gets remembered.

 
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Do we need a second national police force?

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

GardaPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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