Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Public housing must be for more than one class.

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

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 1st August 2016.

If you were a property developer and you found yourself in prison, in the last ten years or so, you would be forgiven for telling other inmates that you were instead an axe murderer or maybe a drug dealer, as there seems to be less social stigma attached to the latter two occupations. People forget, and I say this declaring myself as someone who was raised and still works in the construction industry, that developers created thousands of well-paid jobs and record numbers of dwellings that actually provided homes for people. Yes, they did this to make a profit, in some cases vast profits. But guess what? That’s their job. But it underlines why the strategy of successive governments to rely on the private sector to meet our national housing needs is essentially flawed.

I bring this up in the context of the ongoing debate as to how we house our people. Let’s be clear: housing, the right to shelter, to a home, is just that, a right. I’m not a great believer in socio-economic rights being enshrined in law as I don’t want unelected judges writing the budget, but housing is different. An orderly society cannot exist without adequate housing for its entire people.

The problem for us is that the private sector and the public need are both focussing on different things. Builders will try to sell houses at the highest price possible, to make a profit, and to berate them for wanting to do that is ridiculous, any more than it is to berate public sector unions for trying to get the highest level of pay for the lowest level of work from their members. Again, that’s their job.

We get angry with the private construction industry for not paying attention to social goals which are not its problem. The CIF didn’t run for election, the government did, and with that we have to recognise that the demand for affordable housing is a different thing from what the private sector is pursuing.

That’s not to say, by the way, that the state can’t sit down with a builder and pay them direct to build publicly owned housing. That’s how we’ve done it in the past. But that’s the state taking direct control of housing policy as opposed to just hoping that what the private sector builds will meet our needs.

There are two residential property seeking groups in the country. The first see housing as a home but also possibly as an investment. It can be a family home but it can also be a holiday home or a flat rented out with an eye to post-retirement income. The issue with that group is that it tends to have relatively easy access to funding and so can outspend the second group in the market, the people who just want a home. Indeed, many in that second group would be happy to rent long-term if they had some sort of continental-style tenancy security.

That second group struggles to access funding and, let’s be honest, shouldn’t really even be in competition with the first group. Instead, we should have a separate housing market for them, shielded from the influx of distorting funds driving up prices. But how?

It’s time for the state to go into the rental business. Isn’t it already, you ask? Yes, it is. For the class with the lowest income, where it provides effective ghettoization and where public housing can be dismissed as being for “those people”. A genuinely ambitious government would go much further.

First, it would set up a national rental company, a semi-state body which will probably become the single largest residential landlord in the country. Such a company could then acquire or build a large volume of decent quality housing, which it could then offer to anyone who wishes it at a fixed percentage of their income.

Initially, the middle class will turn their noses up at this. Even if it buys housing in the proverbial “nice” areas the middle class will still opt out because they don’t know who they’ll be living beside. That’s always being the stigma with social housing. Indeed, many a private tenant in a totally private apartment block will tell you of the shoulder-shrugging response of property management companies to anti-social behaviour from other tenants.

That’s the second part of the deal: each building should have a 24/7 live-in supervisor with the power, through a pre-signed social contract every tenant would sign, to summon a couple of permanently on-call Polish or Lithuanian security consultants to assist in the removal of those anti-social tenants who refuse fair warning. Yes, there’d be war and calls to Joe and talk of constitutional rights and all the rest, but after a few high-profile enforcements and recognition that you can get decent affordable housing and neighbours of all classes and creeds who respect each other, you will catch the eye of the middle class. It’ll be the ALDIisation of public housing.

Then, as with everything in Ireland, once the middle class start demanding it, it’s a whole different ball game.

The private sector can still carry on meeting the housing needs of those who can afford it, but this way we end up with a huge professional landlord setting a continental standard for rental properties for those who just want somewhere to live. That’s not an unreasonable thing to ask for.

 
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We should teach globalization.

WTOPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

I used to work with a guy who regarded me as the spokesperson for the “Right-wing Thatcherite” FF/PD coalition. He was very left-wing himself, and despite living in a house provided by the taxpayer, having a medical card, children’s allowance and paying almost no income tax himself he would savage the government on a daily basis for being anti-working class. His solution to every thing was a 32 county socialist republic where people like me would pay far more tax.

Occasionally, he would declare that he would be happy himself to pay more tax to achieve “social justice”.

Then one day he turned up with a load of cartons of cigarettes which he’d bought off a fella on Moore Street which were not, shall we say, tax compliant. I challenged him on this.

Without a glimmer of shame he replied “Yeah, but the amount of tax on cigarettes is ridiculous!”

To his credit, he wasn’t being evasive about his tax evasion. When I pointed out that the billions raised on tobacco funded public services, he was only interested in how unfair the level of tax was. This from a guy who savaged me on every other day about uncaring cuts to health and welfare budgets.

He genuinely could not see the connection, and in fairness, who could blame him?

After all, who is making it their task to explain the link between taxes raised and public services provided, other than the odd ranting bearded columnist?

It’s not just Irish public spending. I had a discussion with a successful businessman who could not understand why government could not refuse to buy products or services from abroad. When told that other governments could do the same, he was genuinely perplexed that the two could be linked.

Watching debates about Brexit and Trumpist protectionism, it’s becoming clear that the very concept of critical thinking is coming under threat in modern western society. People want to be able to buy low cost items whilst complaining at the same time about free trade.

There are two sides to this. One is the social acceptance not necessarily of ignorance, but the belief that all opinions must have equal weight. Just listen to how much broadcast current affairs coverage is taken up with vox pops. You can hear heart-rendering stories about people struggling with homelessness, yet come away from the story not knowing how many housing offers by that same council were refused by people on waiting lists, and why. It’s almost regarded as impolite to challenge a non-politician on anything they say, although there is an exception made for HSE officials and anybody in any form of business.

Perhaps we need to teach globalisation in our schools as a subject in itself? After all, it is the single factor that will almost certainly shape the lives of the next generation of kids and probably their kids too. Globalisation as a subject would almost certainly be a lesson in critical thinking itself. I’m not talking about it as a defence of free market ideology either, because there are arguments to be made for protectionism as well. But as means of getting the next generation of voters to understand that the 21st century is a devilishly complicated and integrated place, and that pulling lever X will cause something to happen in Y.

From people who think that scrapping the government jet or TD salaries will solve all our problems to the man who rang up Joe Duffy suggesting that the government could reduce house prices by ordering everybody to knock a zero off their house value, we struggle to connect the dots. At few points in our secondary education, still the highest level most people will reach, will we be required to logically dismantle and explain big concepts like taxation vs spending, or international trade.

Instead, people are permitted to separate connected issues, and demand lower priced products, higher wages, and private sector innovation at the same time, as if they have no relationship to each other. People talk about how nobody elected the bond markets without grasping that you have to sell bonds to them and take their money in the first place for them to have any power over you.  

Of course, we know where it leads. Venezuela is currently led by the most economically illiterate policy-decided-down-the-pub government in the world, ordering supermarkets to sell below cost and then wondering why there is no toilet paper on the shelves the following week.

That country also shows us where such a failure of rational thought leads: suspicion and constant fingers being pointed at “them”. We see the same in Brexit England and Trump’s America: an almost Salem-like belief that dark forces are the cause of all problems, and their eradication the solution to everything from job-replacing technology to consumer forces to demographics. Trump and Wilders and Le Pen are the modern Witchfinders General of the age of emotional suspicion over reason.

There’s a scene in the movie “Whoops Apocalypse” where Peter Cook plays an insane but extremely popular prime minister who believes pixies cause unemployment, and proposes to create jobs by throwing employed people off a cliff.

We used to laugh at stuff like that. These days, not so much. If we’re not careful, yesterday’s satire could be tomorrow’s presidential tweet.       

 
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Kate O’Hara, Taoiseach.

SEnta Berger Kate O HaraI’ve recently started writing a collection of short stories about a fictional female Taoiseach, Kate O’Hara, leader of the Centre Party and deputy for Dublin East. I’ll post them here as I complete them:

Kate O’Hara I: A Bear in the Air.

Kate O’Hara II: A Scandal in Ranelagh.

 

 

 
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The Great Voter Transfer Window.

Marine-LePenPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

The answer is staring us in the face. It’s so simple. On this side of the Atlantic we have a bunch of  Islamophobic globalist conspiracy-fearing The Past was Just Better Somehow voters. On the other side we have a bunch of Islamophobic globalist conspiracy-fearing voters.

Wouldn’t they all be happier together? Or put it another way. Imagine Hillary voters stepping off a boat onto a continent with no death penalty, universal healthcare, strict gun control and where even conservatives support the welfare safety net? Who think countries working together is actually normal and not a conspiracy of the Rothschild family?

See where I’m coming from here?

We need an Atlantic voter transfer window. We send them our crazies, we take their rationals.

There are challenges, of course, but also opportunities. Don’t tell me there isn’t a huge TV opportunity in watching Trump, Wilders and Le Pen voters getting to know each other.

“Wait a minute: you guys speak French?”

“Pardon? To whom do I give this doctor’s bill? What? I have to pay for it myself? Sacre bleu!”

But at least they could agree on one thing: they all hate Muslims.

“A toast to our American friends!”

“Eh, pardon Madame Le Pen, but we don’t drink wine here. Alcohol is evil! This here is a dry county!”

“Eh, OK…can we all agree that Muslims are terrible?”

“Yes!”

“Nearly as bad as the Jews!”

“Eh, steady on there.”

“And don’t get me started on them darn tootin’ homosexuals!”

“No, we’re against the Muslims because they’re against the homosexuals.”

“The Muslims are against the homosexuals?”

We did this once before, you know.

Put a load of fanatics on a boat and sent them to America.

It was called the Mayflower.

 
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Elected mayors are the silver bullet

Posted by Jason O on Sep 30, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

For many Dubs there is a special place reserved in Hell, even beneath the frozen alive for all eternity form of Judas Iscariot, just for that bane of the average Dubliners’ life, The Corpo.

The Corpo, or to give it its formal title, Dublin City Council, gets terrible stick. Of course it does, being given the thankless task of governing a region of the nation for which permanent indignation is the default setting. More than most other counties, the county symbol of Dublin should be a Dub shuffling along with an inflatable crucifix, given my native county’s natural disposition towards believing everything is just terrible.

Let’s be clear: Dublin City Council isn’t the worst. It makes mistakes, of course, but as with so many Irish institutions it suffers from a lack of ownership. Most Dubliners don’t think of the city council as their council, and so its decisions are dismissed as at best arbitrary and at worst the product of some hidden elite agenda. Dubliners don’t elect the man who actually runs the city, Owen Keegan. A man who will spend a budget of nearly €863m in 2017. Yeah, sure, the city council nominally sets the budget. We all know the reality. Once the rubber stamp thumps down on the budget, it’s over to Owen.   

Just look at the debates on getting cars out of the city centre, or building proper physically segregated cycle lanes that don’t rely on the frankly overrated power of a millimetre of paint to protect cyclists from traffic. Indeed, local authorities would probably be just as effective using the cycle lane paint to paint pentagrams on our roads to cast Satanic spells to protect cyclists. I doubt it would be any worse.

These are big issues, with strong arguments on both sides. The decision to reduce car access to the city centre is one which will have an impact on the quality of life of both people who use the city centre and those who drive there. It’s a question of convenience versus a more continental lifestyle.

These are issues that affect ordinary Dubliners every day. That’s why there was such heated debate about them during the local elections in 2014.

What’s that? You don’t remember that debate? Actually, you’re right. You don’t recall it because it didn’t happen, because our local elections are so parochially focussed that city or county-wide issues hardly ever get debated. Instead, you get right down to an individual lamppost or speed ramp on a street, or the future of the Palestinian people. But the future of Dublin city? Never.

There’s a very simple reason why. There are no votes in it. There is no time when you as a voter get to vote for a person at local level with the responsibility to actually make decisions.

TDs lobby. Cllrs call for things. But actual county-wide decisions are for the most part made by unelected county chief executives. It’s not that they make bad decisions. But they’re not our decisions. I attended a briefing in Dublin City Council years ago in my Progressive Democrat days where the then city manager, John Fitzgerald, and his team laid out the strategy for the development of Dublin. It was very impressive, and his team were well on top of their briefs. But they actually laughed out loud when asked about councillor input. Not out of arrogance, but because councillors for the most part just weren’t interested.

Take another county or city-wide issue: housing. Who is in charge of building houses in the city? Who can we fire in the polling booth for not delivering? Local councillors are more interested in stopping housing developments to placate voters who have actual homes. Only a county-wide mayor has a big enough constituency to be genuinely frightened by people who use housing as their first preference deciding issue. Imagine an independent Housing First candidate for mayor of Greater Dublin. He or she won’t win, but every candidate will be falling over them trying to get their second preferences. Suddenly housing is a real election issue. It’s the same with cycle lanes and reducing car access. A single-seat election, either at county or regional election, and suddenly every candidate can’t ignore those issues, because 50% of the vote is much harder to get than a usual quota. At a city-wide level, suddenly both the cyclist and motorist vote matters.   

This is why we need elected mayors with the power to raise money and spend it.

If there is a single political reform Leo Varadkar could introduce that has the potential to seriously change how Irish politics works, it is letting every county directly elect a full-time executive mayor.

From Dublin’s perspective, it would create a single individual not just charged with approaching the city as a region, but who could be dismissed directly by its people. Real proper accountability.

For the counties outside Dublin it would not only do the same but also recognize that Dublin shouldn’t be the centre of all politics and ideas. That every county should be able to set its own path.

Politicians don’t like the idea, because it shines the spotlight too closely on someone. Councillors say they want councils because it’s more democratic, but that’s not the answer. The reason so many councillors are against elected mayors is because a) they like their year-long responsibility free look-at-my-chain ego trip, and b) they like being able to hide amongst their colleagues.

“It’s not my fault X didn’t happen. I was in favour but all the other councillors were against it.”

In the ward next door another councillor is saying the exact same thing.

And the ward after that. And the ward after that.

But this changes everything. Suddenly there’ll be a new generation of public office holders whom the public know actually have budgets and the power to spend them. Some will do a Homer Simpson, blow their budgets in a reckless bid to be popular. Maybe so. Let them, because it’ll be the people of the county who will then have to suffer the consequences of their vote.

Some of the elected mayors will be awful chancers. But others will transform their counties, turning Leitrim into the Vegas of Ireland, or Wicklow into fashionable Brighton. Maybe the mayor of Kerry will fill the ditches of the kingdom with the overturned cars of people who have had very big dinners. Some may even try to turn Fingal or Dublin City into Havana or Caracas, putting commercial rates through the roof or trying to erect statues of Che Guevera or Stalin or The Unknown Provo on O’Connell Street.

Good: let them try. It’s time to take the stabilisers off the voters and the politicians.  

It’s the next step in breaking the Dublin Castle mentality that permeates the nation. That we are a nation of grown-ups who have to make decisions.

By the way, one final thing: Owen Keegan hasn’t been a bad city chief executive. I suspect he wouldn’t make a bad mayor either, and I’d seriously consider voting for him. But I would like the opportunity to make that call. After all, it is my money he’s spending. 

 

 

 

 
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We need to take the lead on tax harmonisation.

Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland Edition

Who would have thought that Brexit was going to be so boring? It’s going on and on and on and aside from the odd entertaining scene provided by Brexiteers united in a bond of trust akin to that of your average New Jersey gangster, it feels like nothing is actually happening.

As if that isn’t bad enough, our political parties know that despite the mind-numbing tedium of the process, they have to be seen to be constantly talking about it because it is, of course, very important to our open island economy. That would be fine if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and Labour and even (whisper it) the shinners all had differing opinions on what our response to Brexit should be. But they don’t. Each one is an interpretative dance saying the same thing: no border, keep the UK market open, and keep the rights our citizens currently enjoy both here and in the UK. Even an election won’t change it, regardless of whether FF or FG end up propping up the other, the Schrodinger’s Cat of Irish politics, both in and out of power simultaneously.

The funny thing is that there is a huge issue looming towards us which is going to require a huge national debate. It has the potential to tear us apart, destroy our European policy, indeed call into question if not our membership of the European Union itself but at least the Eurozone. Whilst Micheal and Leo are down in steerage, drawing each other like “one of your French girls”, there’s a wall of pain looming out of the night towards us and we may not have anyone in the crow’s nest with binoculars.

It is, of course, our old friend, tax harmonisation. It’s back on the table, it isn’t going away, and more to the point, we should be willing to engage. It’s time we start the national debate. Should we support a European corporation tax regime?

We all know the arguments against. Our sovereign right to set corporate tax is the closest thing we have in Ireland to the Americans right to bear arms. Whereas in the US middle-aged men dress up in combat gear and take up positions on streets with ridiculously unnecessary firepower, in Ireland corporate lawyers stand menacing with copies of the Maastricht treaty tucked in underarm holsters. We’re on a rock in the north Atlantic, and without the power to help giant corporations fiddle their taxes (sorry, achieve optimum tax efficiency) we have bugger all to offer them compared to other countries within the single market. That and we’re a bleeding island too, that doesn’t help either.

True, we do speak English. The Americans regard us as less objectionable than the French and not as scary as the Germans, and in any case they’re related to half of us. Also it helps that our nearest neighbours seem determined to win the Olympic gold in self-face punching, but the tax issue is a big deal to us.

But things are changing on the continent. Emmanuel Macron is busy trying to push through reforms to French labour law to, you know, let businesses hire people without the MD having to surrender a kidney as a hostage. But as his plummeting poll numbers show, he’ll need to do something to shore up the centre-left vote that put him in. What better way than kicking the crap out of mega-companies? Nobody likes them anyway, so make them pay more than the current somewhat modest contribution they make to our corporate tax coffers? Hence our problem.

We could panic, and try to hold the line. It would at least save us the hassle of having to think up a new policy. Lord knows, our politicians sure hate having to think up anything other than new ways to spend other people’s money. Didn’t we get through the first fifty years of independence on a single idea? That everything was the dirty Brits fault and if they cleared off out of the north we’d be in clover? That was quickly followed up by Jaysus, Look at the Size Of The Wallet On That German Fella! Now we’re like a non-violent Pablo Escobar, helping all sorts dig holes to bury whatever it is they’re burying, of which we’d be shocked, shocked I tells ye, to discover was money.

Now that era is coming to a close, and rather than roar and shout and play the victim, let’s confront a few harsh realities.

Yes, Macron needs the tax revenue. But so do we. Just go into McDonalds and see the stationary robot you type your order into. We’re entering a new period of human existence, where labour surplus (what we used to call unemployment) mixed with longer life expectancy will require huge wealth redistribution. Everything from more health spending to a basic income will require more tax revenue, and Ireland alone can’t raise that money if it is engaged in tax competition with other members of the single market.

The argument has always been made that we will be screwed by a consolidated tax base (CCCTB) because we lose a very attractive tool and get little in return as many of those companies, hit by taxes wherever they are in the EU, decide to move to the continent where the main marketplace is.

It’s a fair point. It’s also why Ireland can’t just drag our heels but have to leap forward with a proposal. That yes, we are willing to drop our veto to tax harmonisation. But only if it goes the whole way by creating a central European Corporate Tax Treasury. A central fund where all Europe’s corporate tax revenue will go, and where a country like Ireland, at a serious disadvantage being both on the Atlantic rim and an island, will be guaranteed a compensatory share. A share we can use to openly bribe companies to stay here, whilst enlarging the corporate tax take for all of Europe.

It’s a big deal. It might even need a referendum, given the fact that we would be effectively ceding some tax-raising powers to Brussels. This is high stakes, because the Brits have proven that they can’t stop European integration and we can’t either.

But we can turn this to our strength. Google and Apple and the rest aren’t dummies. They can see the argument on corporate tax is changing globally. Now, with the Brits sailing off into the 19th century, the corporations still have a friend at the table that gets them. That will listen.

Us. The island between Boston and Berlin.

But only if we take the lead, work that seat, be the bridge between our FDI friends and the Macron-Merkel alliance.  

Scary? Yup. That’s life in bed with the giant Franco-German elephant.

But rather than complain about being squashed, better we get an early say as to who gets what side of the bed. 

 
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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.

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