Attitudes to litter tell you a lot about our national psyche.

As with so many things in Irish politics, certain events trigger an almost identical response every time.

Take some public event which leaves a load of litter lying about. The response from different quarters is always the same, and highlights the competing psyches in the country.

First up are the Civic Spacers, the people who take offense at public spaces being violated by people dumping their property (Yes, when you buy a Big Mac you own the box too) and what it says about us as a country. I’m unashamedly one of them.

Then there’s the Not My Faulters. They accept that litter is undesirable but that disposing of THEIR unwanted property is not their responsibility, but that of “the government” or the business that sold them the product and its container, as if coffee should be poured into your hands. Their valid point, often about either a lack of bins or bins overflowing due to bad government is swept away by their refusal to take responsibility for their own actions.

“Wait, I have to carry this Magnum wrapper around in my pocket until I find a bin??? Why. Is. My. Life. So. Hard???”

Next up: the Have We Not Got Bigger Problems crowd. These lads are an off-shoot of the Sell The Government Jet To Solve All Our Problems gang, who believe government can only focus on one issue at a time (their issue, naturally).

“I can’t believe some people are worried about a little bit of litter whilst Palestine/Direct Provision/Housing/The Great Replacement is going on!”

Finally, there’s the F**k Yous. Not only do they not care, they are not even aware of litter. You can see them come out of McDonalds, pull off a wrapper, walk by a bin and toss the litter. There’s no point trying to shame them with TV ads: the only thing they respect is the physical force of the state stopping them, and that’s the issue. What is the most likely outcome of you littering right in front of a Garda? You know the answer. If you brass it out, probably nothing.

That particular statement should be our national motto.

How to use your ballot most effectively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most political cronies I know are the same. 

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

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

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

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

A Sinn Fein-Fine Gael coalition is (now) no longer an unbelievable idea.

There is an old Vulcan saying: “Only Nixon could have gone to China.” It was referenced by Spock when he proposed, much to James T Kirk’s chagrin, that only an anti-Klingon hardliner like the Enterprise captain would be trusted by the Federation to negotiate with their old enemies in crucial peace talks. Likewise, we as a country are approaching a crucial moment in Irish history: where the real breach in Irish politics, not that between FF and FG, but that between Sinn Fein and the state itself, is finally healed. For that to happen, those of us who fear for the integrity of the state itself have a choice to make. Do we attempt to keep SF out of government forever, or do attempted the political version of a controlled re-entry?

At SF’s current support in the country it is simply no longer viable to maintain a Cordon Sanitaire against the party. I have many criticisms of SF but it is no longer a party of its historical extreme anymore than FG is. It is the democratic choice of anything from 25%-35% of Irish voters and that is a mandate. There are those in the party who have a curiously Tory view of politics, that if Sinn Fein wins the plurality of the vote it somehow has the right (as Tories believe in the UK) to impose their minority opinions on the majority because they were “first past the post”. But this is not the UK: this is a republic with a parliament elected by a fair voting system which means that a government must have majority support in the parliament, and that parliament’s majority must have majority support (or close to it) in the country. Does it lead to weaker government? Almost certainly: we’ve never had a Mrs Thatcher in this country, and on the other hand, we’ve never had a Mrs Thatcher in this country.

Keeping Sinn Fein permanently out of government is no more healthy than the situation in the north, keeping them (and the DUP) permanently in government. Their day, to coin a phrase, will come.

Thanks to STV however, it is very unlikely they’ll even be close to a majority in the Dail, and so will need coalition partners, and it seems to me that FG may well be the least worst option.

The idea of FG in coalition with SF is not a new one. Many in FF suggested it before the last election, but both FF and FG ruled it out, and kept that particular promise. But at the next election I believe it would be wrong for FF or FG to rule out coalition with SF, if only because it is looking mathematically, if the polls are accurate, that at least two of those three parties will be needed to form a stable government.

You could be forgiven for thinking that FF would be a more logical coalition partner, given FF’s republican roots etc. But I’d like to suggest that such an option would be a very bad choice for FF because FF is in a curiously weak ideological position, and yes, that actually matters. A party that currently resembles more a franchise like Spar than a party with a set of cogent and unique values is open to infection (and eventual assimilation) by its coalition partner. Look how FF went to the right in coalition with the Progressive Democrats, and to the left with Labour. It’s the large jug of water waiting to be flavoured by the stronger Mi-Wadi of its partners, and SF definitely has the stronger flavour of the two. Could FF be to SF in govt what the PDs were to FF in their watchdog role? It’s hard to say that FF is currently as strong in its self-identity as the PDs were in theirs, and that makes FF vulnerable to a de facto reverse takeover in coalition with SF, with FF candidates ending up as sweeper candidates for their coalition partners.

A stronger argument can be made that FG would be the better coalition partner with SF, in that both parties would then cover the two broad political viewpoints in the country. It’s also very unlikely that either SF or FG would end up in either’s thrall, and that’s to the good. Both would check each other’s excesses, FG would take the national security issue seriously, and FF would, with the Alphabet Left, have an opportunity to recover in opposition and provide robust scrutiny to an SF/FG government.

Indeed, a decision by FF to refuse to coalesce with SF would put SF in a very awkward position, assuming FG don’t rule it out also, in that it’ll be hard for SF to play the cheated victim if it refuses an offer from FG to enter negotiations to form a coalition, especially now as the principle of a rotating Taoiseach has now been conceded.

The challenge for FG is equally substantial. The default position, vote FG to keep SF out, is a simple and attractive one, from a vote-getting perspective. But it is not the national interest position. SF are not going away. SF speaks for a substantial section of the Irish people and will enter government at some point, and it is better they enter government with an equally strong-willed coalition partner as opposed to the current “in-therapy” FF or the rubber-stamping magic-bean buying Social Democrats. FG needs to start preparing its voters for this possibility, because if there is one thing we have learnt from recent Irish politics: Irish voters don’t like either surprises or 180 degree handbrake turns from the parties they’ve just voted for.

Should we fill some public offices by lottery?

In the really excellent French political drama “Baron Noir”, which I recently finished watching on Amazon Prime, one candidate for the French presidency advocates a policy of sortition, that is, the filling of public offices not by direct election but by lottery.

It’s not a totally new idea: Athens did something similar back in ye olde day, but on the face of it, it sounds loopy. God knows what we would get into office. Indeed, the biggest opponents to it tend to be convinced that extremes will end up in office, horrible old bigots or commies. It also threatens to leave you with a public body that voters look at and ask “who are those people supposed to represent? Not me!”

Certainly, when I first heard of the idea I thought it was nuts.

I’m not so sure there’s isn’t a role for it now.

Someone recently told me of an industry event they attended where a politician spoke at it, and was so ignorant of the subject in question that some of the attendants started laughing in the middle of the politician’s address. Just to be clear: they weren’t laughing in disagreement: they were laughing because the politician was so badly informed.

I’m not sure it was the politician’s fault: he has a reputation for being a very astute constituency operator. Politican goes Where the Voters Are! Shock Horror!

But it does raise the issue as to whether the skills and indeed personality needed to get elected are actually the same to govern the country reasonably well? Indeed, as a country we are disturbingly comfortable at handing over executive day to day decision-making power to appointed officials from NPHET to City & County Managers to judges.

On top of that, why would you run for office anyway? We’ve seen the abuse people get for running for election. Running for election is very very hard in Ireland. It can be expensive, and incredibly time consuming. Want to improve the quality of live in Dublin City? Don’t run for the council: join it and work your way up. You’ll have more power than most cllrs within five years. A democracy where candidates for political office become a sort of caste apart is not a healthy democracy. We need ordinary people to take part in public decision making.

Now, let’s not go mad. I’m not proposing we replace elections with lotteries. But consider an alternative.

Supposing if every half-term we appointed, say, a fifth of the county council at random by lottery. For a fixed two and a half year term. We’d gender balance it, and any eligible citizen could register, knowing that if they were picked they’d have two and a half years to make arrangements, and would be paid whatever their current salary was. If we applied it to Dublin City Council, it would mean 13 new cllrs appointed every 2.5 years. If it applied to Seanad Eireann, it would mean 12 new senators arriving fresh. Of course, there’d have to be some training, but after that let them at it.

I suggested this once to a party political activist and he actually got red-faced angry at the idea that people were “jumping the queue”. As if the political system was owned primarily by politicians.

But we could get crazy people! Yes, almost certainly. We’d get the odd racist, but also the odd transgender person. We could get some headtheball roaring and shouting about immigration and Travellers. We could also get our first black former asylum seeker citizen looking nervously at her family in the public gallery as she takes her seat in Seanad Eireann. Indeed, one thing we would get more than anything else would be people who never thought they’d ever hold public office in the republic. People who weren’t political insiders. Perhaps an awkward squad who asked awkward questions and made the professional politicians shift awkwardly. All to the good, I say.

But you could end up with some extremist holding the balance of power! Why? They’ll only do that if the other parties don’t cooperate.

They’d serve their two and a half years, and be on their way. Some will milk it, some will be corrupt, and some will be able to speak on legislation because it is what they do in real life. Some may find that the really liked being a senator or county councillor, and run for real. But you would almost certainly have families suddenly finding a senator or councillor in the home where as before it was a different world to them.

It would certainly be interesting to try it on a pilot scheme level, just to measure the public interest. Maybe nobody would register? But bear in mind one thing: it’s not that unusual. After all, we let randomly selected juries have the power to deprive their fellow citizens of their freedom, something more powerful than anything a member of the county council or Seanad Eireann currently does.

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

blofeldPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition (2017). 

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.

An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The salary scandal.

A bank employee counts Euro notes at Kasikornbank in Bangkok

1. An individual in a public/NGO organisation is discovered to be on a Lotto style pay package.

2. Organisation initially tries to deem this a “private matter”. Is shouted down by public, stampeding backbench TDs and grassroots members.

3. Organisation admits truth. Suggests that no one in organisation can explain how salary came about. Suggestion that it was made by someone conveniently dead is a popular favourite.

4. Basic investigative techniques like inquiring from the bank who authorised the payments, and working backwards, are deemed “inappropriate”, which is one of the great Irish words.

5. The public get cranky over the idea that anyone can earn over €100k, on the basis that “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys rule” obviously does not apply in Ireland. (See Irish financial regulation, 1997-2011)

6. The story goes around and round in circles with the actual answer, who authorised this, never emerging. Public hearings seem to involve more windy grandstanding than actual specific questions.

7. Someone resigns on a Lotto style severance package.

8. The phrase “for legal reasons” (the other great Irish phrase) is bandied about to blur the situation. In a shock outcome, Learned Colleagues make a nice little earner on whole affair.

9. The organisation promises a new “robust” structure for salary/remuneration.

10. Rinse and repeat.

Why Ireland should join a European Defence Force.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

If there is one national trait that separates the Irish as a race from many others, it is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once. Take last week, where we sniggered at an ad put out by Boris Johnson declaring a very substantial increase in the British defence budget, classing British forces as a force for good in the world and the bravest of the brave.

We sniggered and also gnashed our teeth, remembering Bloody Sunday and the British army at its worst, opening fire into a crowd of civilians in response to what regard as a legitimate paramilitary operation against an occupying power, the assassination of British intelligence operatives on a quiet Sunday morning.

The solution to statues.


“History’s greatest monster!”

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

I think I have it. The solution to the problem of statues of individuals falling out of favour with people or becoming unfashionable. 

The ancient Romans, used to redesigning public monuments as previous emperors fell out of favour with the new regime came up with the concept of having interchangeable heads on statues. 

All hail whatsisname until he either drops dead from overindulging on pheasant stuffed butter-fried giraffe or until the senate accidentally repeatedly stabs him, and the new fella needs to be lauded. Off comes the head, always sitting on a flattering chiselled Love Island style physique, and on goes the head of the new guy. 

Good Reads: Alfie-The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne.

“Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne” by Trevor White. Alfie Byrne is unique in the history of Independent Ireland. As Lord Mayor of Dublin continuously from 1930-1939, a former member of the House of Commons and both TD and senator, he was arguably the third or fourth most well known politician in the country. But more importantly, by his mayoral office he was seen as someone who spoke for Dubliners and in particular the working class Dubliners who loyally re-elected him time after time. The office of mayor, despite being ceremonial, was a useful soapbox that allowed him to intervene in the lives of many through access to the Corporation. After Byrne, the city council never again elected someone to two consecutive terms, returning the mayoralty to a mere political jolly, long enough for a year long ego trip but not long enough to be blamed for anything.

Makes one wonder what an elected mayor with powers could do.