Posted by Jason O on Aug 23, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on Monday 15th August 2016.
You can’t blame Fianna Fail for their pledge to increase the state pension by a fiver. More than anything else, Fianna Fail exists to win elections, and you go where you think the votes are, and pensioners vote. The question as to whether pensioners actually need another €5 a week is an entirely different issue. Ask Fianna Fail and you’ll get Standard Answer No.1 in the Big Book of Automatic Political Responses: “Haven’t they worked so hard, our old people? Aren’t they entitled to dignity in the winter of their years, etc?” Politically, it’s untouchable. Grade A political gold.
But ask another question: is the €150 million the increase will cost the best use of an extra €150 million we just happen to have down the back of the National Fiscal Sofa? Could it be put to better use on a more socially just cause? Because let’s be honest: there are undoubtedly pensioners struggling to get by. No question. But there are also pensioners who paid off their mortgages years ago, have their medical cards and bus passes and will always thank you for an extra fiver but, (insert incoming political taboo warning here) don’t actually need it. Even if you wanted to just target pensioners who actually are struggling, by giving them a supplement payment, that would be better and simply fairer, targeting finite resources towards those in need.
We’re not dopes. This is simply Fianna Fail bending the knee and paying tribute to the motherlode of dependable actual voters. They’re not the first, and they won’t be the last either.
It also raises the question about how another significant group of voters gets the opposition of the “haven’t they worked so hard?” treatment. Our young people. Young entrants into teaching or nursing got shafted by their own unions in order to protect older, better paid members. Social welfare restrictions were put on young people when wealthy pensioners were getting free medical cards thrown at them. Young people are an easy target because politicians believe that they just don’t vote in reliable enough numbers to matter, or in a significant way that might affect them. Remember the pensioners protesting over the over 70s medical card? They knew what their issue was, and which party’s candidates were to blame. And they voted. The trifecta of political terror. Young people, on the other hand, sure who knows if they even vote, and whether it’s over polar bears or the gays or whatever.
You can’t blame politicians. If young voters don’t take themselves or their own issues seriously, why should politicians? Democracy gives us all a vote, currency that politicians hunger for. But you have to be willing to spend yours wisely to get the best value for it.
Here’s a group of voters that not only has a unifying economic interest, but has the demographic heft, if it chose to use it, to actually get things. Imagine a properly organised Young People’s Party, for the under 30s, which actually dared say “The pensioners have gotten enough. It’s our turn now.”
That’s not to say that all young people think the same politically. Of course they don’t. But this is a section of society that has the most job insecurity, highest unemployment, greatest difficulty affording putting a roof over its head assuming it can even find a roof to pay for. There’s certainly enough there for a platform that a lot of young voters could look at and say “these guys are talking about me”. But where is their political voice? The Alphabet Left parties and Labour have always tried to set themselves up as the natural voices for young people but even they will put pensioners interests first because they too need the votes.
Just ask one of them, live in front of a microphone, will they put the interests of young people ahead of that of pensioners. They’ll give you some guff about intergenerational solidarity and how both should be priorities.
But that always, always results in the pensioners getting to the head of the queue. This isn’t about creating an anti-pensioners party: but it is about pointing out that all the other parties put pensioners first every time and that is not in the interest of the under 30s.
The biggest favour a young people’s party would do for all of us would be to force politicians to admit that politics is about the distribution of finite resources, and that no, everybody can’t be sorted from the same pot. As Brexit showed in the UK, the division between young and old is becoming a potential seismic fault in politics, and you can’t blame young people for wanting to stand up for their interests which are often different from those of their parents. The rising cost to young taxpayers of an aging and longer living population is going to contribute to that division. The truly radical departure of a young people’s party, and its greatest challenge, would be to resist the urge hardwired into every Irish politician to pander for every vote equally.
Of course, this all hinges on young people actually getting organised and doing all those boring things that you need to get candidates on ballot papers and then to win votes and seats. Have young people been pushed economically far enough to be willing to do something about it? That’s the question.
Posted by Jason O on Aug 10, 2016 in Irish Politics
Previously 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.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Picture the scene: the new National Assembly of Ireland-stroke-Dail Eireann meets for the first time, gathering to be addressed by President Kenny and King Charles III. The new national anthem, Two Peoples, One Country, written by Bono, is sung awkwardly by the assembled group, all reading from hymn sheets. In the Dail chamber, the new flag of the country, a South African style pointing to the future arrow affair made up of green, white, orange, blue and red is put into place alongside the tricolour and (at the insistence of unionists) the UK flag. Both heads of state deliver part of their speeches in English, Irish and Ulster Scots, the three official languages. In the United Nations, a new country name is slotted into place: the Federal Union of Ireland. In Dublin, civil servants correct official documents to reflect the fact that many of the former unionist politicians were bought off with various titles, and we are now a country with Sirs and Lords in official life. To wrap up the day in the traditional manner, the Canadian Ambassador punches someone.
It’s not unreasonable to suspect that there is something in the above paragraph that will get up the nose of either unionists or nationalists. But it also raises the fact that when the issue of a united Ireland is raised publicly, as it was last week by the Taoiseach, its’ proponents have usually given little thought to the actual details.
There’s an almost Trump-like approach to the issue, where questions are met with “It’ll be great!” followed by louder singing of rebel songs. Is there a single leader of nationalist Ireland who would be willing to list out, in detail, the actual things that we as a country would have to concede to unionists in return for their widespread consent?
As it happens, even the idea of seeking widespread consent from unionists is controversial, with too many nationalists believing in the Putin/Erdogan idea that 50.1% of the vote gives you a right to ride absolutely roughshod over the other 49.9%. We know this is a dumb idea because we’ve seen it ourselves in the north of Ireland from 1922 to the Good Friday Agreement, and how it not only doesn’t work but actually makes things worse.
The truth is that even if there is a hair-splitting majority of voters in Northern Ireland in favour of a united Ireland, unionists will still have a blocking veto on what the new Ireland will look like. They’ll have demands, and if we are to convince a million unionists that this is their country too, we’re going to have to concede big.
Just recall the indignation that something as minor (yes, it is) as re-joining the Commonwealth attracts. That’s at the very bottom of concessions. Wait until we need a new national anthem, flag, name, or have to recognise in a new constitution how important the British sovereign is to a section of, yes, our people. Wait until we find the DUP demanding that the Northern Assembly has a veto over the removal of the 8th amendment.
Then there is the honours system. How do we feel about having a Lord as Taoiseach-stroke-Prime Minister of Ireland? What about the compulsory teaching of Irish in the north and Ulster Scots to our children in our schools, a language which, let’s be polite, most of the south doesn’t even accept is a language as much as the soundtrack to an episode of Rab C Nesbitt.
All this before we get into the meat and potatoes of how we fund this. If I have learnt one thing in the last ten years of Irish politics, it’s that the Irish people are plain lying when they say they are willing to pay extra taxes for a noble cause.
An Irish government would be wise to test that support in the one place where the Irish always tell the truth not to pollsters or their politicians but to themselves: their wallets. A government that announced a new unity levy on VAT and PAYE to build up a ring-fenced reserve to pay for a future reconnected Northern Ireland in advance of a referendum on reunification would certainly put every nationalist party in a bind. It’s one thing to belt them out at the top of one’s lungs at closing time, but quite another thing to happily put one’s hand in one’s pocket for the privilege. It’ll be fun watching the anti-tax parties (i.e. all of them) dance a jig around the issue. They can hardly claim double taxation on this one, although I’ve no doubt that some will suggest that the EU, US or even the Brits should and will somehow pay for it all.
Perhaps we It could even put that proposal to the people in a pre-unity referendum, a straight forward “put your money where your mouth is, Irish” to the voters.
Would it pass? Maybe it would. Perhaps I’m just too cynical to see the patriotic passion that a possible united nation once again means to so many. But given they’re not so hot on paying for clean water coming out of their own taps, forgive me if I remain sceptical about voters in the republic taxing themselves extra to guarantee loyalists the NHS.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 18th July 2016.
Writing on social media last week about the Nice attack, the conservative commentator John McGuirk remarked that “at some point soon, people are going to say “you know, we tried the nice way. We tried tolerance. We tried being understanding. Maybe it’s time to give the crazy guy a shot at it.”
It’s hard to dispute the logic of his argument, given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months. From Trump to Brexit, we are witnessing what some are calling “post-truth” politics but what I prefer to term The Right To One’s Own Facts. The most disturbing aspect of the Brexit debate for me was the willingness of voters particularly but not exclusively on the leave side to casually dismiss facts which did not fit with their worldview.
But what should really alarm us is that there now seems to be substantial numbers of voters who choose to vote recklessly on the basis that “sure, it can’t get any worse, can it?” There are literally millions of people voting for Trumps, Farages and Erdogans. It can always get worse.
In 1979 the trades unions brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government because they thought he was too right-wing. Think they were still applauding themselves for that act after ten years of Mrs Thatcher? Reckless voters keep thinking that they can’t break the system, even when they pretend they want to.
But they do want to break it, some say. Why shouldn’t they? They’re disengaged. Except they’re not. They are completely engaged by other taxpayers through the state. It often provides their dole, their healthcare, their housing, their kids’ education, all funded by the taxes of voters whom they themselves seem to hold in contempt for being “an elite”.
The welfare state isn’t some form of natural fiscal phenomenon. It’s a decision by voters collectively to provide what is, in many instances, a form of nationalised charity. Sure, get insulted all you want at that definition, and talk about entitlements and rights, but bear in mind that whilst all of us, in every class, cannot avoid paying some tax, even if it is just VAT, some pay far more into the pot than they draw out, and others vice versa. You know where the poor are disengaged properly? Venezuela. When you can’t even find toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Disengagement? That’s abandonment by the state, and it isn’t happening here.
The other awkward reality about reckless voters is their contribution to the rise of the hard anti-immigrant right in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What do these countries all have in common? How about, in one study after another, they collectively have the highest standards of living as nations in the world, which actually means in human history. So what’s their gripe? How disengaged are they? Is their broadband speed letting them down? Not getting enough time to play Pokemon?
What unifies Trump voters, Brexit voters, far right and far left voters? For some it is simple racism. We seem to believe that racism is no longer possible, but is merely a symptom of some other underlying cause. But guess what? Some people just don’t like people who are a different colour or creed. It doesn’t matter why, we just have to ignore them because their opinions are irrational and listening to them about the direction of society is like listening to Jimmy Saville about child protection protocols.
But I would suggest that the racists are a minority, and the real motivating factor for many of these voters is the speed of change, and that’s a big problem. Yes, immigration transforms societies, but so does technology. The speed of transport has sped up immigration, but it has also sped up shipping times from the cheaper labour less employment rights factories of China and thus made off-shoring jobs much more viable. How do you stop that?
The Trumps and the Le Pens can stop immigration, and erect walls, both physically and tariff. But they can only alter the speed of change by actually withdrawing their respective countries from the globalized economy, which has all sorts of consequences from labour shortages to the price of food in the shops.
For me, the greatest reason why we should ignore reckless voters is their belief that complexity can be removed. That “take back control” or “just send them all home” is an actual solution. This is using a match to see if there is any petrol left in the drum stuff, and it must be opposed.
Of course, all that assumes that a majority of voters will vote in a non-reckless way, and that, in the age of Trump, is a hell of an assumption to make. Just look at the Erdogan of Turkey.
In 1932, in Germany, 52% of voters voted for either the Nazi party or the Communist party. Many of those same voters would have to wait for 17 years for another free election, and only after their country lay literally in ruins and under occupation.
It is very possible for voters in a democracy to vote to abolish themselves. Reckless voters have a right to be heard. But they don’t have a right to grab control of the wheel of the bus and take us all down with them. Nor are we obliged to let them.
So, if we were to reset the European Union, what would it look like?
We, the peoples of the sovereign nations of Europe, and members of the European Union, declare the following:
That we recognize, in the ballots of the people of the United Kingdom in their referendum on the European question, that the future of the European Union must be debated.
We also recognize that in casting their ballots they raised questions about European integration which have been raised with equal concern and passion by other peoples in other member states of the union.
Accepting these facts to be true, the European Council, being the representatives of the peoples and national parliaments of the nations of the EU, and its highest body, declares the following to be the basic laws of the policy of the European Union:
The Council recognizes that the European Union is a community of sovereign democratic nations, and that those nations, at the behest of their people, are the primary source of democratic legitimacy of the union. Some of those nations may wish to integrate to different degrees from others. The EU will respect the sovereign right of each nation to determine its own level of integration, or to withhold participation.
The Council recognizes that no new country may join the European Union without the consent of the national parliaments of all existing member states.
The Council accepts that whilst some member states may wish to cooperate on defence issues, no member state or its armed or security forces shall be obliged to participate without the consent of that nation’s national parliament. The European Union shall not have the power to introduce conscription.
The Council believes that the European Court of Justice exists to interpret the laws of the union as determined by the member states. Therefore, voting by a majority of both member states and population, the Council may overturn any ruling of the European Court of Justice.
The Council also believes that the national parliaments are the indispensable voice of the people of the member states, and so a majority of national parliaments representing a majority of the population of the EU may vote to suspend or abolish any existing EU directive or regulation, or block any proposed one.
The Council acknowledges the unique role of the European Parliament, and so grants to it the right to initiate legislation which may only become law if passed by the European Council and not blocked by the national parliaments as per the preceding clause.
The Council concedes the question of the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission. It therefore announces that the President of the European Commission shall be elected by the people of the European Union on the same days as the European Parliament elections. A method of nomination of candidates may be decided by a majority of the national parliaments.
The Council affirms the right of any European Union citizen to renounce their EU citizenship, and all the treaty rights attached to it.
Finally, the Council proclaims that no member state shall be forced to accept migrants without its consent.
We believe that this declaration, which we commit to transcribing into a binding treaty, shall recognize the modern aspirations of Europeans and the appropriate balance between the union and the sovereign member states.
Posted by Jason O on Jun 12, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 20th February 2016.
Here’s a hypothetical for you to consider. How would Irish voters react if the government announced that National Lottery winnings were to be subject to income tax? I have a suspicion that people would be outraged. Never mind the fact that Irish voters constantly tell pollsters that “the rich” should pay higher taxes or that they’d happily pay higher taxes for better public services. If you won €500k on the Lotto and the government announced they were taking half of it, I suspect most Irish people would have their noses seriously put out of joint. Despite the fact that it is effectively free money and they’re getting to keep a quarter of a million.
There’d be all sorts of excuses as to why Lotto winners should be exempt. That they had “invested” thousands already in unsuccessful tickets. That the multinationals don’t pay their fair share of taxes. The banks. Yeah, those two words are now an excuse for anything you don’t like. Or that isn’t it unfair that some poor creature finally gets a break and now the government is piling in on him. In short, the Irish don’t like tax more than they don’t like cuts in public services.
Yet, through this, one of the most boring and curiously distant election campaigns in recent history, that real division in Irish society has barely been touched. With the possible exception of Lucinda Creighton, hardly anyone has stood up and openly defended a view held, quietly, by a huge section of the Irish people. Stuff your public services. You’ll only give my money to pay LUAS drivers more than I earn. I want to keep my own money.
The real issue in this election is, as ever, about tax. Income tax, property tax, USC, water tax. With the exception of the Social Democrats, who are getting margin of error ratings for their troubles, hardly any candidates want to defend the concept of higher taxes paid by you for better services. The alphabet left and Fianna Fail point to those living breathing crocks o’ gold, the wealthy, as the perennial source of finance for all our public service goodies. But hardly anybody will knock on the door and tell you openly that they will tax you whatever it takes to bring people poorer than you up to your level.
Put the people who just want to keep their own money, the people who say they can’t afford to pay any more tax, and the people who say that the government will just squander it and you probably have a majority of the Irish electorate. The next Dail will have a majority, regardless of who is in government, of deputies who will resist any attempt to openly (stealth taxes are different) increase taxes on the great majority of Irish people.
Yet hardly anybody wants to debate the link between taxes and public services. Nobody ever challenges members of the public on TV debate shows or Joe Duffy about why they should get more of someone else’s earnings. It’s that wonderfully Irish ability to hold conflicting views at the same time, and never be challenged on it, and it’s not doing our society a service in ignoring it.
This election campaign would have been better served if non-party people had openly debated the future of Irish society, acting as de facto proxies for our wobbling jelly politicians who won’t say boo to a goose because they reckon the goose might give them a 6th preference. A debate between, say, Fintan O’Toole and our own Cormac Lucey would be a far more engaging and honest discussion about where we would like to go as a country than what is passing for debate between the parties.
The big invisible pachyderm at the heart of Irish politics is a pretence that there is some perfect political G spot where you can get all the public services you want for buttons in taxes. Every opposition claims it, every government fails to find it, rinse and repeat. It’s nonsense, and dishonest nonsense at that.
But instead of admitting that politics is about choices, we have a parade of politicians listing out vast sums of other people’s money which always exceeds even the piddling extra taxes or savings they will admit to supporting. At the moment, our politicians would be doing less harm if they were actually handing out cash for votes rather than making promises that involve huge public sector expansion. Irish politics would be better served if they could offer us money on the doorsteps in return for the promise of a vote.
At least then, come the day of the count, it would be the politicians who’d be storming around the count centre in a temper because they’d been lied to. “I was promised thousands of votes on the doorsteps! I gave away thousands of euro! I can’t believe the voters lied to me, I mean, what sort of lying, dishonest…” They’d stop spending money on posters and leaflets and instead every election campaign would involve the candidates and a van from Securicor going from door to door haggling like Tunisian carpet salesmen. You’d certainly make sure that you were in to meet them. Indeed, you’d probably make an appointment. In the Philippines some candidates for office are known for giving out a left shoe to voters, with the promise that the voter will get the right shoe if the candidate is elected. I could easily see a candidate working his way down a street in Ranelagh or Donnybrook with a selection of Jimmy Choos.
Wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.
Posted by Jason O on May 28, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published on the 20th March 2016 in The Times Ireland Edition.
As an event, the Easter Rising and the mythos that has gathered around the events of 1916 are a bit like an impressionistic painting. From a distance it’s a striking story. A band of courageous patriots took their lives in their hands in a blow for national independence, and many of them paid the final price. Their sacrifice ignited a flame in a nation which resulted, six years later, in the withdrawal of the British from Dublin. Many who participated knew the odds and the likelihood of defeat and indeed death, yet still stepped forward into a story of simple human courage that is hard to beat.
Looking back from 2016, it has transformed from an impressionistic event to a piece of modern art which is open to interpretation from all. How many times this year will we be subjected to the use of the centenary to justify a call for more taxpayer spending for one interest group or another? As if the Easter Rising somehow suspended the laws of mathematics and made the issue of revenue versus expenditure a question which should no longer apply here?
Let’s confront a few awkward realities about 1916 and its aftermath.
Firstly, the country we are living in is pretty much the country the men of 1916 envisaged. You know how we know? Because a huge number of them ended up in the Dail, running the country. Throwing the King out and then twisting in one smooth pivot and falling down to kiss the Archbishop’s foot? That was the men of 1916, that was. Not all of them, but enough to matter. WT Cosgrave, Eamon De Valera, Sean Lemass, from 1921 to 1966, with the exception of John A Costello, this country was led by 1916 veterans.
As for the women of 1916, here’s the really awkward bit. It’s arguable they’d have gotten more rights if we’d stayed in the UK, and yes, I appreciate how mortifying it is to admit that. See Constance Markiwicz? The fabled first female cabinet minister? Her successor came in 1979. The Brits were appointing female ministers in every decade from the 1920s. The first birth control clinic opened in Britain in 1921. They had access to legal abortion from 1968. Britain elected its first female prime minister in the same year we appointed only our second female cabinet minister.
Did we build a republic more progressive than the kingdom we left? That’s where the impressionistic images of Easter get all ragged. Yes, we got rid of the monarchy, and good for us. But we replaced the monarchy with the hierarchy. On nearly every social justice issue we were behind the Brits for most of our history, not ahead of them.
So much so that it led to the awkward reality that hundreds of thousands of Irish chose to flee a sovereign government elected by their own votes in Ireland to live voluntarily under British rule. In Britain. From our first days of independence Irish people continued to take the boat to England. You didn’t see many East Germans hopping back over the wall to do some overtime.
The Ireland we built from 1922 wasn’t a betrayal of the men of 1916. That was an active choice by Irish electors in free elections. If 1916 stood for anything it stood for the right to national self-determination, and we as a people determined to remain economically and socially backward as the rest of Europe moved ahead. Indeed, economic progress only began in earnest when we started to once again share sovereignty, this time with the rest of Europe.
You cannot dismiss the sheer physical courage of those who raised rifles on that crisp, clear morning. But we are doing them a disservice by using their sacrifice as a lazy bookmark for highlighting modern day grievances and our reluctance to actually confront our problems with a sense of rationality. It’s just not good enough to utter the stock “Was it for this?” and then saunter away in indignation.
To put it in context: imagine the sneering any Irish politician would get if he raised taxes for a specific social purpose under the banner of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you.”
The men and women of 1916 asked what they could do for their country. The men and women of 2016 seem to always have an excuse why someone else should be making a greater sacrifice.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 13th December 2015.
Last week, Preet Bharara, The US Attorney (Director of Public Prosecutions) for the southern district of New York sent out a tweet welcoming the conviction of a man named Dean Skelos. Skelos was New York State’s senate majority leader, and had been known as one of the “three men in a room” along with state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and governor Andrew Cuomo who actually ran the state of New York. Skelos was convicted of bribery and extortion charges, accused of trying to enrich his son. In November, state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on corruption charges too. Both men look like getting about 130 years each.
These were important men. For many years, in New York state politics, these were The Men. Between them, they controlled the New York state legislature and a state budget of $150 billion dollars, nearly three times the national budget of Ireland. What was interesting was that the US attorney saw fit to publicise widely his role in putting these men behind bars. Political showboating? Almost certainly. The office of New York’s US Attorney has already proven to be a political launching pad for one Rudolph W. Giuliani, who’s jailing of dodgy Wall Street types won him a lot of votes with ordinary working people who wanted to see that the law applied to the mucky-mucks as well.
Does Attorney Bharara have ambitions for elected office? Who knows. But if he does, it’s not unreasonable for him to think that going after corrupt politicians might win him votes.
It’s a good job he’s not running in Ireland.
Watching the RTE Investigates report into our home-grown breed, you see the differences. First of all, it’s not the Garda or Department of Justice hunting these guys down. It’s a television station. If you google “FBI public corruption”, you get the page of the FBI that deals specifically with it, and lists out all the recent public officials convicted in recent months of corruption. In the US, if you’re a councilman or a state senator, there’s always the chance when some guy offers you a brown envelope that he’s actually an FBI agent wearing a wire.
Think Irish councillors have ever worried that the Gardai were out to get them? Put “public corruption” into the search engine on the Garda website. You get the following “You Searched for ‘corruption’ filtered by ‘all’ Pages returned ’0′ results.”
The truth is that there is no one in the Irish state, unlike in the US, who gets up in the morning and says “today I’m going to nail some corrupt so-and-so to a cross.” As with so many things in Ireland, it’s nobody’s job. Why not?
Why doesn’t Garda Commissioner O’Sullivan announce that she is setting up a dedicated unit to pursue and actively attempt to bribe Irish public officials, as the FBI (and RTE) do? Who’ll stop her? The minister? The Taoiseach? As it happens, they probably don’t have the power to stop her. But more importantly, they wouldn’t have the stones. Yeah, all across the country county councillors would be up in arms, talking about their “good names” being dragged into disrepute by the mere existence of such a unit, but so what? Would it be the worst thing in the world if every grasping sticky-fingered “what’s in it for me?” councillor had just the lightest film of sweat on their brow every time he sat down with a developer? Or when he picked up his phone?
By the way, on that note, why haven’t RTE named the councillors who refused to meet them because they felt it was inappropriate? The fact that there are councillors who actually aren’t on the make is as big a story as those who are.
Of course, it’s unlikely the Garda will take such dramatic action. The organisation is notoriously reactive. After all, according to last week’s Garda Inspectorate report they seem to be only getting around to the fact that there’s a thing called “the internet”. The one thing that would make the Garda take corruption seriously is the one thing that made the late Telecom Eireann and Dublin Bus up their game: competition. If the government outsourced the pursuit of corruption to, say, a private security company or legal firm which got paid by the number of its privately investigated cases the DPP felt able to bring to trial, then suddenly the Garda might sit up. Now there’s an idea as to how to spend Atlantic Philanthropies money.
That’s the unwritten truth we all avoid: the Garda don’t take corruption seriously because the Irish people don’t, and they work for them. Voters, as a general rule, don’t see dismissing corrupt politicians as being their job. In fact, it’s even worse. A politician who spends his time trying to clean up politics is almost seen as a time waster not doing proper local graft work. There’s also the reality, which the commissioner will be well aware of, that the Irish people are far more likely to dismiss a politician who fights corruption than one actually being corrupt. Just ask Pat O’Malley (remember him?), Joe Higgins, Jim Mitchell or Dick Spring.
Fighting corruption in Ireland is going to be like bringing in divorce, equality for women or decriminalising gay rights. One of those issues where the majority of people either have no interest or are mildly opposed to it, but is pushed by a tiny well-organised, dedicated group. Then one day you reach a tipping point and it becomes the cultural norm, and everybody wonders why we didn’t always do it this way? It’s be the tiny Social Democrats or Renua or a plucky independent who forces the big parties to finally take action. That’s the Irish way.
Previously published on the 24th January 2016 in The Times Ireland Edition.
Watching our British, and specifically English neighbours having their ongoing nervous breakdown over their relationship with the rest of Europe, we have to be concerned. To us, it’s sort of like watching Mammy and Daddy fighting, and knowing with that awareness even the youngest of children have that if the outcome is bad it’ll affect us badly too.
Having said that, it also raises an awkward question for us. As a country that is Olympic gold medal standard in ignoring awkward questions, we have to confront this one. If the Brits go, should we consider leaving the European Union too?
Put that question to the spin-the-bottle FF/FG/Labour political establishment and they’ll blurt out an automatic no. But this is done without thinking, and not because of any commitment to the cause of European integration but to a hardwired revulsion of anything that sounds like change.
As it happens, European unity is not just about World War II but about a group of small countries with similar values magnifying their power to shape the global forces that affect us, from mass migration to terrorism to international trade. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t take a dispassionate eye to what is in our national interest.
Here’s the awkward reality: yes, keeping the Brits in is in our interest. But if they leave, getting them a good deal is absolutely vital. We trade nearly €1 billion a week with them, and anything that interferes with that, from border control to tariffs to British access to the single market is a threat to our national interest. Any threat to that trade is the biggest and most likely single non-terrorist threat to our economy. In short, if our membership of the EU threatened our access to the British market, that would be a serious conundrum for us.
Then there’s our membership of the euro. There are some in the country who believe that returning to a national currency would allow us more flexibility in that we’d have nominal control over interest rates again. They’re right, of course. But we’d also have to balance our desire for appropriate domestic interest rates with the need to keep the currency shadowing both sterling and the euro. And that’s before you consider how lip-licking populist Irish politicians would look at political control of interest rates. It’s not hard to imagine them demanding that the central bank pay attention to “social justice” when setting interest rates and ending with politicians wondering why we can’t just “temporarily” print more of our new national currency.
Sorry, but I have more faith in a currency run by Mario than Mary Lou.
The big question is whether it’s enough to justify our exit? The vast majority of our FDI must regard our membership of both the euro and the single market as a key factor for investing in Ireland. Obviously along with our “Hey, Apple, keep your hand in your pocket, this round is on us!” approach to corporate taxation, but access to the single market matters. It’s certainly not for our tiny domestic market that they’re here. We haven’t even got a proper Apple store. Likewise, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy would be a shocker too, as, post Irish exit, the IFA lads point that famous rattling bowl at the Irish taxpayer and ask “Well?”
I’ve no doubt we should stay. The deciding factor for us on staying will be the same thing that can be traced all the way back to Michael Collins. Small nations need a place at the table, to be inside the room. The Brits used to think that way until the eurosceptics came up with the surreal concept that either a) the EU, and therefore the room, was going to go away, or b) the room doesn’t matter. Or there’s the even more bizarre idea that you can have as much influence in the room by not being in it, like some form of geo-political séance. Sort of “Knock once if you want a change in banana curvature regulations.”
There’s also one reason why examining Irish exit might be dangerous. It might make the rest of Europe look at what they get out of us being in the EU, with our two-faced approaches to things like abortion and neutrality and our bloody referendums. It’s true, Angela wants to keep us on board because she can scold the Greeks and point at us. But that all hinges on Irish politicians not making a future balls of the public finances. I wouldn’t be brimming with confidence on that one. This is a political class, after all, whom I suspect now regard calling in the IMF as a form of political ctrl-alt-delete button.
If someone had told the lads on Easter Monday 1916 that 100 years from then a sovereign Irish government would be sitting in the councils of Europe demanding a better deal for the Brits they’d have choked on their figrolls.
Yet the truth is that it is in the interest of Ireland that we side with them against our gallant allies in Europe on this issue.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t stop trying to slap some sense into them before the referendum. Nor will we be alone: I suspect the run up to the referendum will have the Americans and the rest of Europe imitating that scene in “Airplane” where a queue of people line up to slap sense into an hysterical passenger trying to get off the plane in mid-flight.
Still, surely we’ve come a long way. 100 years ago we would have just shot them.
Posted by Jason O on May 21, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 11th April 2016.
Here’s an interesting fact. In pretty much every recent EU treaty referendum we have had, the right to maintain low taxes for some of the biggest corporate names in the world was a key issue. All across Ireland, ordinary working people who pay nearly half their own income in taxes, went into polling stations to ensure those companies paid at most 12.5% in tax, and often only a fraction of that.
Why would they do that? Are we a nation of secret ideological Romneyites worried about the mega corporations and their right to keep their money?
The truth is, we’re smart and selfish. We recognise that those companies employ thousands of people in this country with very tasty pay packets which contribute to our taxes and get spent in our shops and restaurants. They rent and buy buildings and apartments and houses from very grateful Irish landlords, and take out mortgages from Irish banks that get giddy with excitement when employees from the world’s most famous companies come through their doors.
In short, this country is a company town. We know where and by whom our bread is buttered.
Of course, it means that we’re more conflicted than other countries are about the issue of those companies paying their proverbial “fair share” in taxation. We’re not France. We’re more Jersey or Isle of Man, a country that doesn’t want to rock the boat because they paid for the outboard motor.
And yet we still get angry, or at least pretend to when papers are leaked from Panama, or we’re told that giant companies are routing vast profits through various schemes to shield them from taxes. But is it a real affect-how-I-vote anger, or just an anger we copy from stuff we see online from the UK or US where it’s fashionable to be angry about these things?
Whether your anger is real or not, there’s a reason why you are going to have to care about this issue, and it’s this: public spending is going to continue increasing, because it has to. We live in an age where medical technology is advancing at an eye-watering rate, and with that, constantly higher public expectations. Thirty years ago a cataract or a bad hip was just a burden of old age, a cross one carried.
Now there is an expectation that the healthcare system must rectify the problem, yet another cost to the public purse which just didn’t exist in the past. If a man wasn’t cutting the mustard in the bedroom, that used to be his problem: now, with the invention of Viagra, it’s the minister for finance’s problem. All that additional medical capability prolongs life, which means that people are living longer and thus the cost of senior care is going to continue to rise too. Nursing homes aren’t cheap. State pensions are going to have to be paid for more people and for longer.
In short, it’s no longer a question of whether we want to collect higher taxes from multinationals, but having to.
It will not be politically sustainable, certainly across Europe, to tell voters that their healthcare expectations will have to be reduced because multinationals don’t want to pay taxes.
As with so many other issues, Irish politicians, like their continental counterparts, will eventually have to confront the reality that corporation tax competition, whilst a short term benefit, is reducing the tax base. Tax harmonisation across the EU, that dreaded concept, is going to have to be considered.
One can argue against a common EU corporation tax rate, and there are good arguments against, especially for countries like Ireland or Cyprus, on the outer edge of Europe. But you can also recognise that a common means of calculating corporate tax liability is going to be needed to crack down on avoidance. The Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB), which Ireland opposed as the beginning of a move towards tax harmonisation, is the agreed set of rules by which each member state levies corporate taxes, regardless of what rate is set nationally. This is now back on the table with a vengeance from the European Commission, and it isn’t going away, especially not if the Brits take their coat and leave in June.
In fact, the issue is going to get even more complicated. After all, even if the EU were to agree a common corporate tax policy, there’s nothing to stop those same companies just basing themselves outside of Europe.
That must surely then open a whole new front in the debate. Is it acceptable that we give access to Europe’s greatest asset, our 500m consumers, and then let them give us the two fingers when it comes to contributing towards maintaining that market?
Because let’s not forget: yes, they can move their profits offshore, but they can’t move their consumers, our people. We’re the prize. Is it possible, for example, for the EU to devise a special sales tax specifically targeted at the products of companies that aren’t morally tax compliant in Europe? A tax on, say, a certain brand of coffee shop which then gives its’ morally tax compliant (often small business) competitors an actual price advantage?
In short, you can hide all you want in Grand Cayman, but when we start disrupting your relationship with the people who actually buys your product, maybe then you’ll want to talk with the European taxman?