The EU: Missed when it’s gone.
NBC Dateline Brussels, Belgium, 2025.
Camera pans an imposing star shaped building, revealing the odd broken window, and weeds growing up through the forecourt. A vandalised sign, missing letters, reads “ur ommission”. Camera pans to a handsome man in his early 40s. The accent is American.
“Ten years ago, this building, housing a body called the European Commission, was one of the most important places in Europe, possibly in the western world. It was here, in sleepy Belgium, now one of the world’s backwaters, that American, Japanese, German and even Chinese businessmen would pay attention to see what consumer protection regulations would have to be met to permit their products be sold to European citizens in Greece, Germany or Galway. It’s hard now to imagine the central committee in Beijing, or tycoons and industrialists in Mumbai caring what Europeans actually think about anything, but there was once a time when the tiny nations of Europe didn’t pander and grovel to China for economic scraps, but were in fact a mighty combined economic power in their own right.
Indeed, when one looks at Prime Minister Cameron having this week to welcome the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for fear of losing Chinese investment in Britain, it’s a sorry sign of how far Europe has fallen. So what happened? Read more…
Posted by Jason O on Nov 19, 2014 in Irish Politics
Whilst I do disagree with many of the anti-water tax protesters (not all of them, mind) I do have great sympathy with one point they make. When Irish politicians of almost any political persuasion make a promise, it’s very hard to take it to the bank.
I have no doubt that there is no party in Dail Eireann that would support privatising Irish Water. But I also know, from my own personal experience, that there is no shortage of Irish political types who, if told by their political bosses to work out a way of doing it without calling it “privatisation” would do it without a single moral qualm. Not only that, but they’d regard themselves as really clever for figuring it out. You’ve met them: they’re the people who say “water charge” every time you say “water tax” as if they can hypnotise you to their view through repetition, and end up coming across as disingenuous tossers.
This is the problem. We talk about the need for political reform, but the biggest reform should be for a politician’s word to actually mean something. Our problem is that our political system is occupied at all levels by people for whom honour means nothing. Who say they won’t go into government with X, and then after the election find some fragment of an excuse to do the exact opposite of what they said they’d do. That’s why so many of us have lost faith in the political system.
Fianna Fail have a policy document on their website which pledges, amongst other things, to stop sitting TDs from being ministers at the same time. It’s an incredibly radical proposal. Yet is there anyone who believes they’ll actually implement it? Of course they won’t, yet it’s their stated policy right there in black and white. This isn’t to single out Fianna Fail: indeed, if recent history has told us anything, Fianna Fail’s problem has not been breaking promises but making outlandish spending promises and keeping them. But it is indicative of how one’s word means nothing in Irish politics. Fine Gael and Labour sabotaged their own stated policy on an elected mayor for Dublin.
It doesn’t have to be like this, nor does it cost money to change. It starts with politicians who are serious not about their promises but the reality of what they can actually deliver in office.
Honour should not be a fool’s word in Irish politics. Honour matters.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 17, 2014 in Irish Politics
“The ordinary people” is a phrase that has been hi-jacked by every political conman and huckster since Roman times. He falsely claims to speaks for them, and gains his legitimacy through them, and therefore if you are against him, you’re an enemy of the ordinary people.
We’ve seen this fraud appear on our streets in recent days, on-the-make politicians whipping up mobs into emotional hysteria and then letting them loose. Paisley was a big man for this sort of thing, stirring up the red mist and then walking away if anyone ever got killed.
Now we have a type of politician who sees democratic elections and parliament as a mere tool that they’ll use when it suits, and discard when not. They’ll claim to be nationalists or socialists. They’re big on using the courts to defend their own rights, but will set up their own courts if it’s one of their number accused of rape. They’ll scream “human rights” if Gardai prevent them from going anywhere, but will arbitrarily detain Irish citizens who happen to hold government office. They’ll demand you pay more tax, but declare that they don’t have to pay their taxes if it doesn’t suit them, whether on water or illegal cigarettes or diesel. They’ll justify physical assaults on other citizens as acts of frustration, but if a young Garda defends herself it’s the state crushing opposition.
Fascism is a word that’s casually bandied around, and mostly with a racial connotation. But that’s just one form of fascism. Another form is a group of self-appointed demagogues who have won some votes and now decide to impose their will upon the majority, by a mixture of elections, intimidation and cherry-picking of which parts of a democratic society suit them and which don’t.
In recent years, all across Europe, we’ve seen these people use the frustrations of people to build a political movement founded on intimidation and fear and a belief that the law is not what the courts or parliament says it is, but what they decide in their back rooms.
They’ve finally on Irish streets. It’s time for democrats to suit up.
She doesn’t like paying higher taxes any more than anyone else, or having her public services cut. But she’s rational, and calm, and irritated by the emotional hysteria that seems to pass for debate in modern politics. She hates the masochistic delight that some wallow in over The Banks, like the Vikings and the Brits and the potatoes before them, something out of our control to point a finger at and wail and scream at and blame for our shortcomings.
She knows that every extra euro somebody wants spent on Special Needs Assistants or A&E has to come from somebody else’s pocket, and that’s not right wing or Thatcherite, that’s just sums. As it happens, she is quite left wing on social spending, and that’s why she quietly fills in her standing order to various charities, but that costs money too. But she makes that sacrifice because she knows that things cost money and how strongly you feel about something doesn’t change the basic maths.
That’s why, if she could, she’d vote for the Troika. For calm rational technocrats who look at spreadsheets and tell you what you can afford and can’t. Sure, if you want to increase education spending by X, then you have to increase taxes by Y.
She can’t watch politicians anymore, with their time-eating pre-packaged inoffensive “hard working families” and “investment” and “resources” and basic refusal to tell voters that no, you can’t have your cake and eat someone else’s cake too. Don’t get her started on the angry hateful faces “in the audience”, the witchcraft denouncers of the modern age, wrapping their consumer fuelled frustrations with their own lives into a tight ball of bile and directing it at the cowering, stuttering spineless half-men of Irish politics who just sit and take it like scolded dogs. She watches the cyclical nature of Irish politics getting shorter, with opposition parties making promises that have to be broken sooner and sooner in office.
She thinks she’s alone in her anger, and she’s not. The problem is that there’s a groupthink, where 30% of big-mouths get to tell the rest of us that this is a terrible country (it isn’t) and nothing works (it does)and the health service is Third World (no, it isn’t) and all politicians are corrupt (no, they’re not) and we go along with their image of the country. She knows this is a country with problems but also a country with great strengths.
Is it so unreasonable for her to look for a candidate that doesn’t dress up what they want to do, that gives a cold credible analysis of what they will do in office? Who doesn’t build a campaign on subliminal promises that are so nebulous that they’ll never be met because we can’t measure them. Is it really that unreasonable to look for that?
Posted by Jason O on Nov 14, 2014 in Irish Politics
Posted by Jason O on Nov 2, 2014 in Fiction
, Irish Politics
DEV: PROBABLY STILL END UP RUNNING THE PLACE.
This is one of those counterfactuals that doesn’t hinge on a simple what-if-X-hadn’t-died. The truth is, it’s almost impossible to imagine Ireland not being partitioned without A) the British turning a blind eye (and that includes elements of the British Army which might have mutinied) and B) a civil war between, effectively, Catholic and Protestant that would have been far more vicious than the actual Irish Civil War of 1921-23. It would probably have ended with a mass exodus by thousands of Protestants from the north, pretty high loss of life (especially amongst areas with one group living amongst a predominantly larger one, such as Catholic areas in Belfast) and an historical legacy that we would be thoroughly ashamed of today.
Putting that aside, the question I ask is what sort of Ireland would have developed if the country had not been partitioned, nor fought a bloody and sectarian civil war?
Would we have still had the civil war we had? Given that the treaty did not bring about a republic in name and still required an oath of loyalty to the British monarch, it’s quite possible. But what if the unionist majority in the north (those who decided to stay) regarded the treaty as the best of a bad lot, and decided to fight to defend it given its recognition of their religious freedoms? We forget that the same elections that elected the second Dail in 1921 also elected 40 unionists would could presumably have taken their seats in the Dail, and so would have passed the treaty by an overwhelming majority.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 29, 2014 in Irish Politics
Repost: I’m delighted to see that Des O’Malley, one of my great political heroes, launched his autobiography “Conduct Unbecoming” yesterday. In honour, I thought I’d repost this from 2012:
I was watching Michael McDowell recently on The Saturday Night Show and almost saw him roll his eyes when asked about the Progressive Democrat legacy in government. I don’t blame him, because the party’s time in government, now seen as an historical event as opposed to being part of a current party’s baggage, allows certain myths to gather about the party, which I thought I’d write about.
1. The PDs espoused the “glorification of greed”. Joe Higgins made this point when the party was wound up, and sneered that the party was reduced to a mere two seats. Aside from noting that the Socialist Party has never ever won more than two seats (note: now 3) in its history, the greed argument is very intellectually lazy. The PDs cut taxes for the rich. They also took huge tranches of low paid workers (wrongly, as it now turns out) entirely out of the tax net. They cut Capital Gains Tax, which boosted economic activity and yes, did make some people a lot of money, But also provided social service revenue. But given that Joe has never advocated the reversal the majority of PD tax cuts, does that mean he too supported the glorification of greed?
2. The PDs espoused a rightwing Thatcherite agenda. When I was in the PDs, we used to fall around in stitches when someone on the left accused us of that. The stormiest meeting I ever attended in the party was a General Council meeting where proposed cuts to the Community Employment Schemes were discussed, and Mary Harney was left in no uncertain terms that CES had to be protected. Certainly, the party did introduce some free-market things into the healthcare sector, like the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which uses taxpayer funds to buy private or public care for public patients, and has treated over 217,000 patients since 2002. Funnily enough, Labour didn’t abolish it when they came to power. But Harney also kept (rightly) the Community Rating system in private health insurance, or as an American would call it: socialism. The party did propose letting the public sector shrink by 25,000 (an extra 0 in a typo boosted the proposal to 250,000 and became THE story of election 1997) but that was by natural shrinkage. As it happens, Labour in government has let more go.
3. The PDs were against public spending. Look at the size of the budget in 1997, and again in 2007 and tell me that was true. I wish it was, but the PDs were just as addicted to spending as any other party. Both benchmarking and decentralisation happened (shamefully) under the PDs. Embarrassing yes, right wing, definitely not.
4.The PDs were against social welfare. Again, the facts don’t speak for themselves. Welfare rates rose under FF and the PDs, and I don’t recall anyone in the party having a problem with it. In fact, the party was particularly proud of the increase in pensions and help for carers. You know, the stuff the Labour Party is currently cutting.
5. The PDs were the party of Big Business. Certainly, the party was openly pro-business, whereas FF and FG tended to hide their business contacts. But who brought in the Minimum Wage, and the Office of Corporate Enforcement, or the Environmental Protection Agency or got rid of Dublin’s smog? Labour, right? No wait, it was Eamon Gilmore and Democratic Left? No, actually, it was the PDs and Fianna Fail. The difference with the PDs was that they did not regard “business” as a dirty word.
6. The PDs were socially liberal. Again, this is a myth which people bought into despite the actual facts. The party abolished the death penalty in 1990, despite the fact that there were FF cabinet ministers (Michael Woods) opposed as recently as 1989. But aside from that, on liberal issues like divorce and contraception, the party did nothing. It attempted to reverse the X case ruling in a referendum, and despite making friendly noises about gay marriage, never actually did anything, leaving the Greens to do the heavy lifting and getting civil partnership through (something for which they deserve far more credit than they ever got). The PDs were not as much liberal as not anti-liberal.
This democracy thing is far more fragile than we realise.
I thought I’d repost this rather than write another blog on the same theme. Don’t forget to check out this article about public spending by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, as I think they dovetail nicely. By the way, make sure to watch the short film, it’s fascinating.
1. A sense of entitlement, spread across nearly every social class, that informs people that they somehow have a right to far more government expenditure being spent on them than they ever contribute in taxes, whilst at the same time believing that they are overtaxed and that others are either paying less or getting more from the state.
2. A professional political class that sees winning elections and remaining in office as a career in itself, that sees defined political values as a means to an end rather than an end goal, and that has developed its own sense of Washington Beltway/Westminster Village/Leinster House Doheny and Nesbitt set of priorities and scorecards that are getting further and further removed from the concerns of their respective publics.
3. An electorate, shaped by a post-1950s consumer culture, that expects its political leaders to deliver an unachievable level of political and indeed emotional gratification, constantly leading to disappointment in the political process. For example, this writer encountered people expressing disappointment in a new Irish government for not implementing election promises before they had actually taken office. In addition, that same electorate subscribes to a right to cheap credit but does not accept the balancing obligation of accepting a lower standard of living in order to meet those debts.
4. A media that, due to commercial realities, does not see informing the public or indeed educating them as being a high priority, but instead sees the destruction of political figures, parties and institutions as a legitimate goal in itself, as is the injecting of extreme emotion into any story where possible.
5. The corrupting effect of fundraising on the political system coupled with (see point four) a media that both decries corruption caused by fundraising but also the use of public funds to eliminate the need for private funding. Likewise, a public that demands high standards of political ethics but is unwilling to resource them, leading to candidates who are either funded by other individuals or else are privately wealthy, both cases to which the public also objects.
6. The pervasive influence of modern marketing techniques within politics, in particular the adjusting of parties to become entities espousing the least offensive lowest common denominator coupled with focusing on emotional but essentially distracting “hot button” issues. These are a direct challenge to the concept of politics being a menu of policy options that a well informed electorate can choose from. In Ireland, for example, there are supermarket chains offering more distinctive options than most of our main political parties.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 21, 2014 in Irish Politics
Even when I was an active Young Progressive Democrat, I never believed in the idea that just because someone was young, they were automatically “a breath of fresh air.” Indeed, some of the most reactionary party bootlickers tend to be members of youth parties, eagerly allying themselves to the party bosses and being their useful little minions in the hope of future reward. That’s not to say I didn’t play ball with headquarters. Of course I did, because you have to if you want to get something done. But you have to be in politics for more than just the greasy pole.
I’m writing on the subject because a number of members of Fianna Fail have all raised, in different ways, a similar point with me about their party. Each one of them regarded the younger members of the party, from Senator Averil Power to Councillors like Malcolm Byrne, James Lawless, Kate Feeney and Paul McAuliffe, as being vital to the party’s recovery, not just because they could win seats but because each was actually interested in ideas. I’ve met them all, and know some better than others, but I’d agree with the assessment. That’s not to say I agree with them all, by the way. But each one had a rational and thoughtful approach to ideas which went far beyond the super county councillors that seem to populate their parliamentary party.
And, by the way, it’s not something limited to Fianna Fail either. If you take Rebecca Moynihan in Labour, or Barry Saul in Fine Gael, or Sinn Fein’s Donnchadh O’Laoghaire, you also get a generation of young elected representatives who have an interest in the big picture. As an aside, and I don’t want to overhype it, but exposure through their respective European party memberships to sister parties in the EPP, SD, ALDE and GUE does have an effect.
Of course, that’s not to say that guarantees change. The Fine Gael and Labour parliamentary parties are full of young deputies who talked radical when running and then knuckled under, supporting a government that was so conservative on political reform that it actively sabotaged its own stated policies.
The hope is that as the old guard step down, the young turks might hold to their promise. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time people reached the top and suddenly decide that the system is grand. But there’s a chance.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 20, 2014 in Irish Politics
If you get a chance, check out www.publicpolicy.ie, the website of the Irish Fiscal Policy Research Centre, which is funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, and is a thinktank dedicated to putting out thoughtful options on various public policy issues.
Interesting stuff for the policy wonks amongst us. You know who you are. Yes, you with a copy of Prospect magazine secretly stuffed in the middle of GQ. I’m looking at you.