Posted by Jason O on Mar 18, 2017 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Some years ago, I had to collect a relative from Dublin airport. The flight had been delayed, and it was quite late, and as I stood in arrivals I noticed a former Taoiseach standing in the small waiting crowd. Watching him for a while, it was striking that he got none of the double-taking that even well-known politicians get. He’d been the most powerful man in the country, and now was hardly noticed.
He hadn’t been a bad Taoiseach. It felt like he’d just, for the most part, physically been there. Like Enda.
Whilst it’s fair to say that Enda Kenny had achievements as Taoiseach, overall, as he prepares to leave office, you can’t help feeling that the phrase “squandered opportunities” will be the one that hangs most around the Kenny era. Here was a man whose government came to power with the greatest majority ever, and with a momentum in the country willing to toss aside the old ways of doing politics. He leaves office with the political system, in terms of where actual decision making power lies, in almost the exact shape that he found it.
His successor, whomever it is, needs to ponder that. The refusal to radically change the system didn’t help Enda in the long run. He’s not leaving office of his own volition, but just one step ahead of a political posse.
The next Taoiseach has to decide whether that is what he wants to be too? Another placeholder holding on by his fingernails until he too gets turfed out? Or a man with a body of work that will be his legacy. If he’s the latter, he needs to get cracking from day one.
I have, much to your surprise, dear reader, I’m sure, a few suggestions for our new Taoiseach.
First, decide in your head that less is more. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, advised that rather than overpromise, politicians should under-promise and over-deliver, and not make a big hullabaloo about a policy until it is actually up and running. Don’t make vague and unmeasurable promises about “tackling” the housing crisis and A&E. Decide what you can actually do, do it, then declare it.
There are a number of things you can do quite easily. One, for example, involves a simple clear statement as Taoiseach stating that anyone who paid their water charges will get their money back. These are your heartland, and it’s time they got some respect for obeying the law you passed.
Secondly, explain in a straightforward way, face to camera, why the national children’s hospital has to be built in a congested urban area and not on the M50: there may be very good reasons, but no one in government seems capable of communicating them so far.
Reconsider the whole free GP visits for all proposal. It looks great on paper, but all it will really do is create waiting lists to see GPs. Like it or not, charging for GPs forces patients to perform their own triage. However, do recognise that the squeezed middle without medical cards are paying for everything: give them vouchers for a few free GP visits a year. It eases the burden without flooding GP surgeries.
Next, recognise that voter education, or rather, the lack of it, is the issue that is poisoning politics across the west and could easily do so here. Just look at the number of people on Obamacare who voted to abolish Obamacare and are now shocked to be losing their Obamacare. Government, the matching of finite taxes to infinite public service demand, is going to more and more require the public understanding why choices are being made. As it happens, the last Dail has done a lot of work on this. There is a proposed electoral commission, and minister Eoghan Murphy’s Tax Transparency bill is sitting in the bowels of the Oireachtas somewhere. Let these both be fast-tracked through as the beginning of an active campaign to educate voters as to why decisions are made.
Then move onto making the opposition work for their salaries. For years we’ve been promised an Oireachtas Budget Office that would take opposition proposals through the ringers and make sure the sums were right. Not only should you set it up, you should task it to automatically cost every opposition spending proposal. The opposition work for the taxpayers too: we’re entitled to value off them as well.
While you’re at it, push through elected mayors and that Seanad reform bill. A Seanad elected on a non-geographical basis will focus on national policy, as government has to. And elected mayors are the antidote to reckless opposition: let a load of Alphabet Left and Sinn Fein mayors have to legally choose between increased property taxes and local public services. Make them make decisions.
Finally, invite every EU member state with a population of less than 6m, all twelve of them, to a Summit of the Small. We’re forever complaining when Germany, France and the big six have their summits. Let’s have ours, and send out a clear message that we will defend the free-movement free-trade single market Europe and the sovereignty of small nations.
From day one as Taoiseach, you have a choice. You can just physically be Taoiseach, or you can set out to change the direction of society.
No prizes for guessing which one gets remembered.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, becoming aware of politics, Sunday morning seemed to me to be an important time. Just before the Sunday dinner the opening credits of “Weekend World” would erupt from the television. The show about British politics, presented by former Labour MP Brian Walden, was nearly always too heavy for me to watch, but I always came away with two impressions.
The first was that its theme music, the prog rock group Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride” seemed to me as a kid a bit too mischievous for a political programme theme, in that, played over scenes off that week’s political events, it made politics look very exciting indeed.
The second was that this was a serious programme for serious people. The politicians who went on it, the Denis Healeys, the Nigel Lawsons, the Roy Jenkins, seemed to be very big beasts. They had to be, because Walden conducted what we now call a “forensic interview”. A minister or opposition spokesperson had to know their brief, not because the show got a large audience but because the guests knew that their colleagues and the press gallery would all be watching, and making a bags on “Weekend World” had an impact on your reputation as a serious player.
I was reminded of the show recently watching Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar teeing up to replace Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. How would all three men handle a serious-big-picture-with- details interview on their vision for Taoiseach? One challenge for all three is the tendency of Irish politicians to see an interview not as an opportunity to test an idea or communicate an objective, but as a chore to be endured. Usually with the presentation of a bingo card of safe inoffensive guff phrases like “world class health service” and “meeting the challenges” and listing out everything as a priority. Requests for detail will be met with declarations of support for “Comprehensive reviews”. In short, they try to ride out the clock and get the hell out of there without giving away too much.
We know for certain that the current Taoiseach does struggle with detailed interviews. Not because his government doesn’t have achievements, because it does. Indeed, he has been the victim of the simple churlishness of Irish voters who are willing to blame a government for every economic setback, but rarely give them any credit for creating an environment for economic progress. But then, get a vague Taoiseach, get vague voters.
If there is one lesson Coveney and Varadkar should heed, it’s the importance of being able to communicate a clear metric of what success looks like. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition actually did the opposite, running on a platform of opposition to many of the measures such as water charges and property taxes that they would actually be forced to implement. More importantly, they knew well before polling day that they’d have no choice given the state of the public finances.
But by 2016, the metric to measure them was what they said in 2011 and what they had lied about. What seemed like clever in 2011 to Labour nearly destroyed them as a party in 2016, with the spectacle of Labour activists cringing at the media actually using their own 2011 appearances against them.
It’s not good enough to spew guff about “tackling” the A&E or housing crisis. It’s about either man being able to stand alone in a room with a blank flip chart and a felt tip pen and write out the three or four specific objectives they will have pledged to deliver by the end of this Dail in 2021.
How long should a person reasonably have to wait in A&E before an actual doctor is treating them?
What is the reasonable percentage of gross income someone in Dublin should expect to pay in rent for a two bedroom flat?
There’s a whole raft of questions like those above, but here’s the thing. If either man looks at either of those questions and says “How the hell am I supposed to know?”, then I’d suggest they ring the other guy and tell him they’re withdrawing. They’re two simple questions about ordinary life, and if a prospective Taoiseach can’t either see that, or doesn’t want to answer them, or simply don’t think about things like that, they’re not the man for the job.
We have had, in Enda Kenny, and I’d suggest Brian Cowen too, Taoisigh who came into the job because it was the next rung on the ladder. Is there anyone who really believes either man came back from the park having met the president and rubbed their hands thinking “Finally! A chance to do something on policy X!” Noel Browne came into office determined to do bloody war upon tuberculosis. Labour in 1992 came in and immediately launched a swathe of liberal reforms, leaving a legacy in 1997 of the single most socially liberalising government in the history of the state. Dev from 1932, cumulating in a new constitution in 1937, had a plan.
In 1979 Ted Kennedy famously damaged his campaign for president by being unable to answer why he wanted to be president.
Simon and Leo have a question to answer: why do you want power?
Posted by Jason O on Feb 2, 2017 in Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.
Let’s move the capital out of Dublin. Sounds mad, right? If you’re thinking that, well, you’re in good company because my illustrious editor thought the same when I suggested the idea. But hear me out.
Being capital of a country is a prestigious thing. It means hosting parliaments, supreme courts, government buildings, the executive. It brings with it a certain degree of what could best be described as economic welly, with the salaries of members of parliament and their advisors and all their support staff and families, all on good money, being spent locally. It draws in foreign leaders, embassies, lobbyists, demonstrations, and the odd summit. All who need to be housed and fed, and quite a few not too fussy about value because someone else is picking up the tab.
In short, being a national capital is a money spinner.
But here’s the thing: Dublin, like New York, Sydney, Toronto and Johannesburg doesn’t need that sort of money, because it is big enough and economically attractive enough to lure what we really want. Foreign money. Foreign investment. And in that regard, being a capital is almost a hindrance, with many of those people associated with government using up precious space and housing in Dublin but not adding to Dublin by generating new money. Instead, they’re spending our own money which we had in the country in the first place anyway. Dublin wants value added money.
Supposing, instead, we decided to move the capital. Where? That’s up for debate, but I’d suggest building a new town somewhere in the midlands, planned, as Canberra and Brasilia were, for the purpose of being a capital city. A huge project to create a new economic hub, funded by taxpayer money we spend anyway, in a region that actually would feel the benefit from millions in new spending.
A new parliament, supreme court, Department of the Taoiseach, Aras an Uachtaran, a new airport and rail link, new schools, hospitals, embassies, all planned because we would know almost exactly who would move there.
Would it be expensive to build initially? Yes, of course. But consider again the buildings we could free up in Dublin. Indeed, if we were really ambitious, we could move most of RTE out there too, and free up that prime development land in Donnybrook. Leinster House would make a fine hotel, and it’s not like we’re proud of much that has happened in there since independence anyway. After all, the first few Dails didn’t even meet there.
Is it ambitious? Yes, it is, and not without controversy. We’d need a referendum, and it is quite possible that we’d never get it passed not because the country loves Dublin (as every All Ireland proves) but because there’d be war over what county would get it.
Then there’d be another war once the lucky county is designated and the local Down With This Sort Of Thing brigade do a Shell-to-Sea and wail that it’ll bring terrorist attacks and transsexuals or even transsexual terrorists. But it’ll allow us to kill a load of birds with one giant stone made of money. As part of the design, we can put in a state of the art refugee camp, traveller halting site, wind farm, prison, waste incinerator and (if we can get the water) maybe even a nuclear power plant, all as part of the package. No cherry picking. The county gets all this lovely spending or none, take it or leave it.
We bang on about how much we pay our politicians and how much lobbyists are paid to influence them, so let’s make them all spend their money in a region that needs it. Same with demonstrations. If people want to march on parliament, rather than have them block up the streets of Dublin, let them go to the new capital, where they can march along streets specially designed for demonstrations and buy their cans of Coke and Twixs and sandwiches from local shops glad of the business.
We could even designate a libel-free speakers corner near parliament where you can shout your head off without fear of legal retribution. There’d be a whole stream of axe grinding head-the-balls dying to shout abusive things at passersby and inform their fellow citizens of conspiracies involving the EU and giant lizards. Some people will make the trip just for that.
Yes, it is a very radical proposition, I get that. It would take years to plan, and there is the slightest hint of decentralisation (remember that?) about it. But would it be that bad for our leaders to get away from Dublin with its centre of the universe views? True, the politicians won’t like it. It’s a bit like a political version of the Shannon Stopover, kidnapping them and making them live in Portlaoise. Still, that’ll learn ‘em.
Not convinced? Fair enough. How about we start with a pilot scheme? We could move the Seanad. Sure they’re all just a bunch of jumped up county councillors anyway.
Or we could go for an even more radical proposition. We could move the Seanad around the country like a circus, every week meeting in a different county. The locals would be glad of the business, local schoolkids could be brought down to see the majesty of parliamentary democracy in action, senators could get to wine and dine their county councillor electors, and we could lease the existing Seanad chamber out to turn into something useful.
My money is on a Starbucks.
Posted by Jason O on Jan 28, 2017 in Irish Politics
Previously published in the The Times Ireland Edition.
There must be, in the Department of Health, a particular well-thumbed file. Let’s call it The Groundhog Day File, given that it must be reached for, with a heavy sigh, by some senior health official every time a new health minister approaches his or her first winter.
“We must do something!” the panicking politician will cry.
“Well, we could increase the number of beds, hire and train three extra nurses for each bed to provide 24 hour coverage, hire extra support staff, hire extra doctors and build new buildings to store them all in,” the official will say, reading off the first page of the file as if they have to.
“How long will that take?”
“Oh, between five and twelve years?”
“What? Joe Duffy will string me up. I need an answer now!”
“We could probably scrape about 60 beds together? With some overtime, rejig rosters, blutack…”
The minister then slumps in his seat.
“How are we not prepared for this? This happens every bloody year! Why weren’t these plans put in place five to twelve years ago?” he asks.
The official will smile a smile that simply says “Ah, bless.”
“Because, minister, five to twelve years ago when we said this to the minister, he said he needed an answer right then. But if you were to start spending today’s money on future planning, you could avoid a minister twelve years from now having this problem.”
The minister explodes.
“What? Make decisions now so that that some fella twelve years from now gets all the credit? Screw him! Where’s that blutack?”
And that’s pretty much been the situation for as long as Simon Harris, minister for health has been actually alive. We’ve had Michael Martin, Michael Noonan, Mary Harney, Brendan Howlin, James Reilly and Leo Varadkar as minister, and the one thing that has united all has been the issue of A&E and beds, during good times and bad.
Every year we have the same story, the same individual stories of pensioners on trollies for x hours. The great Gordian Knot of Irish healthcare. The same questions by the public: why is it still a problem? And the same solution proposed by whichever party is in opposition: more resources.
Here’s the reality. Repeat it after me: There are no votes in fixing waiting lists. There are votes to be lost by fixing them.
Yes, I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the Irish people would shower with votes the minister who finally fixed a problem that had seized the popular imagination. That was debated and discussed and cursed in pubs up and down the country? That touched pretty much every family?
Nope. For some reason, modern Irish voters do not reward their politicians for solving national problems. Remember when driving tests were a saga? When you went months and months before you could get a driving test? Older readers will remember that. Then the late Seamus Brennan fixed it, and bugger all good it did for him. Mary Harney pretty much singlehandedly wiped out Dublin’s smog problem. Dublin had a smog problem? There you go. The late Jim Mitchell saved the taxpayer millions through the DIRT inquiry. Lost his seat in the following election.
The Irish electorate don’t do gratitude. So there are no votes in fixing the big problems. But there are votes to be lost. Investing now to ensure that a decade from now we have more bed capacity will cost money now, with little benefit today. But it will also mean taking money away from other spending commitments, and that becomes the story.
“More cuts from minister”. Not “Minister redirects limited resources for better long-term gain”.
There are no votes in long-term policies. That’s not unique to Ireland, it’s actually a cancer at the heart of modern western democracy, that voters want everything now. Almost every major social problem requires planning and spending of today’s taxes to avoid problems in the future. But you cannot get votes on that platform.
I’ve mentioned in this column before that my background is in the construction industry. As a result, I’ve had an opportunity to visit sawmills and forests in Sweden. What’s interesting is that many of the forests are relatively close to the sawmills because as the original forests were cut down, the sawmills replanted them knowing that they personally may never see the benefit. In fairness, Coillte does the same here. But as a general concept in Ireland, it’s a rare beast.
There’s some part of the Irish psyche that can’t comprehend long-term, and it is hurting us. As to the solution, consider this: maybe it is time to take things like housing and healthcare out of politics altogether. Supposing if the Dail decided to appoint a non-political health minister for a fixed ten year term, to implement an agreed long-term plan and budget. The problem with that is that it would strip the opposition of the issue and all the heat and emotion that goes with it. A minister who actually took on those whose salaries and pensions were paid from the heath budget, or “vested interests”, to give them their popular title, would become very unpopular very quickly too.
Politicians wouldn’t like it because their employers, the voters, wouldn’t like it. Nobody likes going to the dentist even though we know we have to.
That’s the thing about democracy: tomorrow is nearly always someone else’s problem.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
As a columnist, giving out yards about the state of the country is pretty much bread and butter. But I’ve always tried, if not succeeded, to convey that my frustration with this country is not from anger with it, but the fact that it is so tantalisingly close to moving from being a great country to a world leader.
It’s from that perspective that I get irritated when I see, and it’s pretty common in Ireland, someone launch a tirade about what an awful place this country is. You’ve heard it yourself. They’ll start with homelessness, or health waiting lists, or mental health services, or any number of legitimate areas of dissatisfaction. But that will be a launch pad into how we have no health service, no welfare system, no housing, how the country is run by the banks and how austerity has left us in a third world country. How we have no democratic choices and how the Gardai are fascist boot-boys and how the media is run by Ireland’s version of C. Montgomery Burns.
Except they get to say all this freely. And secret police don’t kick in their doors, or shut down the Socialist Worker. And they do win seats in the national parliament and draw very nice salaries.
See, that’s the frustrating bit. This country has its flaws in its public services yet our health service provides cheap and efficient care for millions. The great majority of our people are housed pretty well. Hunger is less of a problem than obesity. Our old people get good pensions.
Say what you will about Enda and Micheal and the rest, because you can. Unlike in Turkey or Russia. In Russia journalists investigating crime and corruption get murdered. Know what happens when a crime journalist gets murdered here? As it happens, we do know. The state, our state, mobilised to defend freedom of speech and brought its boot down not on the free press but those who threatened violence against it. Give abuse to our politicians and they might abuse you back, but they won’t send thugs around, even the ones who used to justify murdering political opponents.
But if you really want to know what a great country this is, ask someone who lives and works here but isn’t an EU citizen. Ask them would they like an Irish passport, and they’ll tell you it is a treasured document.
This isn’t all an accident. We’ve made mistakes, and lacked ambition for ourselves, especially with our natural resources, but this has been, since the end of the civil war, one of the most free nations on Earth. As the Trumps and Wilders and Le Pens and Erdogans and Putins become the norm, our little island may well be one of the few tiny specks of light in the coming darkness.
There’s a potential for us, to be Singapore on the Atlantic, but with, you know, a proper democracy. A small well-run place where crazy people are kept away from power. Where Enda and the rest, for all they do that gets up our nose, aren’t Trumpolini. Ourselves, Canada and New Zealand have the chance to be a haven for Americans and others. For a fee, of course. We can’t let everybody in.
But we have a clean, stable, English speaking country with socialised medicine, strict gun control, no death penalty, same-sex marriage, public broadcasting standards, a restriction on paid political advertising on TV and fair elections. We’ve even got an American in the cabinet, and they’ll just love Michael D with the poetry and the Castro. Yeah, the abortion thing might annoy them but given what the Republicans are planning to do with abortion it’s not impossible we end up becoming a pro-choice country just as the US buys a second-hand 8th amendment.
As President Trump starts pulling back on foreign direct investment by US companies, we might find ourselves scrambling for some other strategy.
I think I might have it. You know that ad the National Lottery are currently running about the guy who wins the lottery and buys an island which he gives to Ireland? The first time I saw it, I thought it was just silly and not a little bit colonialist. But then it struck me. If Ireland remains one of the few countries in the world not run by a variation of either Nazis or good old fashioned eejits (I’m looking at you, Venezuela), we could be a refuge for moderate rich liberals who want either to ride out the storm o’crazy or even retire. But the weather isn’t great here, and it’s a serious problem for all those Californian liberals.
But what if the state did buy an island somewhere nice? Owned by the state, operated by the state, and served by Aer Lingus. We could extend our non-crazy jurisdiction to the island, and still tax those liberal refugees. We could stick a few guards and soldiers on it, use rotation to the island for six months as a sweetener in the public sector talks, and here’s the best bit.
It would become a holiday destination for the Irish. Good weather but also somewhere you could still see “Fair City”, get proper chips and Brennans sliced pan. We’d keep the holiday spending in the extended country’s economy.
Of course, we’d have to do something about the duty free and the price of a pint. As for who we’d appoint governor…
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition:
Every once in a while a myth emerges that Ireland could be the Saudi Arabia of either natural gas or fish if it hadn’t been for the dastardly EU or multinationals robbing our natural resources. It’s a very comfortable myth that fits meets with all the criteria of a good Irish tale of suffering and woe.
Firstly, it’s about the simple decent Irish being tricked out of something by more clever foreigners, once again left standing on the side of the market road with a bag of beans as some rapscallion legs it with our prize heifer. Secondly, the prize is always something magical that could have solved all our problems if only we had a chance to benefit from it. Thirdly, it fits in with our bizarre national pride in being the fabled Most Oppressed People Ever, a country with an almost masochistic pleasure in being done in once again. As if our national symbol shouldn’t be a harp but a “Pulp Fiction” style leather gimp mask.
It’s a load of nonsense. It’s true, we do let other countries take out vast amount of fish from our waters. But the question I always ask is what were we doing with those fish before we joined the EEC in 1973? Bear in mind the Norwegian people turned down EEC membership in the same year because they had exploited their resources and felt they didn’t need to join. Were we a fishing superpower, exploiting our natural resources before the evil continentals came and stole our golden goose?
No, we weren’t. In our 50 years of independence from 1922 until we joined the EEC in 1973 we did feck all with our much ballyhooed natural resources. We had no Brits to bully us, no European Commission to set down fishing quotas. We had just us and near total national sovereignty. We were masters of our own domain.
Did we build our own super trawlers and factory ships and conquer foreign markets with good Irish fish? Did we create hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs as a result, stemming the flow of emigration that blighted our land for a century and more?
No. We did little, but started complaining once someone else did something with them, even though we benefitted both directly and indirectly, as did they.
And, by the way: you know all that complaining we do about Spanish trawlers? We were in the EEC before Spain was. We were on the team negotiating with Spain on them joining, so we can hardly complain that Spain got too good a deal.
With Spain in 1985, as with us joining in 1972, we did a cost benefit analysis. What was in our overall interest? Would we lose fish to others? Yes. Would we gain in other areas by joining the EEC and not blocking Spain, as we could have? Yes. We took a conscious decision that hurting our fishermen, and we did hurt them, was in the long run of benefit to the common good for the majority, and we were right. This country, and the people in it, are far richer than in was in 1972 when we had complete control over our fisheries. We had far more farmers than fishermen and they benefitted from access to European markets, standards and the Common Agricultural Policy.
The fact that we chose not to share more of that new wealth with those fishing communities was not a decision made in Brussels, but in the Dail. National sovereignty in action.
In recent years, it’s becoming fashionable to talk once again about national sovereignty as if it is some newly discovered concept. As if suddenly just ignoring the EU or globalisation is some sort of Make Ireland Great Again switch that we could just press if the people we keep electing in free elections weren’t all traitors and sell-outs.
Yet national sovereignty itself is a compromise between symbolism and the power to shape a nation’s destiny. North Korea has much more national sovereignty than South Korea, for example. The south is tied into defence and trade alliances with the US and Japan, whereas North Korea barely listens to China, if anyone. Yet in the south they ponder buying the new Samsung or an iPhone, whereas in the north the big debate for many is whether there’s enough tree bark to go around for supper. Which people have more real sovereignty, that is, control over their actual lives?
The debate to be had isn’t about national sovereignty, but a dangerous growing tendency in electorates across the west to not liking choices. It’s hardly suprising: the post-1945 welfare state was fuelled by levels of growth and borrowing that made choices easy. But there are no easy choices left.
Look at the hand-wringing on-line over the horrific scenes coming out of Aleppo, and Europeans demanding their governments do something. In the same breath, many of the same people oppose Europe acquiring a serious military capability, or the consequences of taking in refugees, or creating some vast EU funded safe-zone somewhere.
But this is the challenge for the new generation of those seeking office. To confront the people who elected them and tell them that phrases like national sovereignty are meaningless. That modern life is about choices, often choosing the least worst of them.
The politician who figures out how to communicate that and still get elected will rule the world.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Last week I was discussing online Sinn Fein’s proposed constitutional amendment on neutrality. As it happens, as someone who is unashamedly pro-NATO, I actually have little problem with Sinn Fein’s desire to put a constitutional ban on us joining military alliance.
For one, it means that Sinn Fein accepts, despite protests to the contrary for years, that the EU is not a military alliance, and that therefore military cooperation within the EU would be compliant with the Irish constitution. Glad to hear it. I’m not sure that is Sinn Fein’s actual aim, but as the 8th amendment has proven, sticking this stuff in Bunreacht na hEireann can actually have the opposite effect to what was intended.
It would also mean we’d have to have a referendum to join NATO. Again, shock horror! Is there anyone who thought that we wouldn’t? Really? I can live quite comfortably with the idea of Ireland not being in NATO for the simple reason that NATO is very important to the defence of this continent, and I don’t really want some sub-par Irish minister interfering with its work. Better we remain outside and just adopt NATO standards after they have been agreed by serious people, as we do now.
But back to my online discussion. A person very sincere in their beliefs about Irish neutrality informed me that they were completely against Irish troops ever serving in a conflict.
The statement fascinated me, because it assumed, as many, perhaps most Irish people do, that conflict is a choice. That if a country chooses not to be involved in war, then it doesn’t have to be.
It’s the sort of utopian view of war that only two sorts of countries can indulge in: ones that are armed heavily enough to make an aggressor think twice, or one that is actually physically hiding behind well-armed and friendly nations. Guess which one we are.
The statement caught my eye because I’d been reading tweets from the various Baltic ambassadors to NATO. Well, someone has to. But all three are full of reports of their local forces, both full-time and reserve, engaged in exercises and training with NATO partners. All three, along with their partners, are genuinely concerned at the possibility of a Russian attack on one of those countries under the pretext of protecting the Russian minority living in them.
Ordinary Estonians are giving up their weekends to drill and train in guerrilla and interdiction tactics to delay invading Russian forces until their NATO partners can reach them. Indeed, each country has seen the number of external NATO forces increase within the country for both training assistance but also as a deterrent against the aggression of the Kremlin.
Imagine an Irishman telling those Estonian farmers, bus drivers and shopkeepers that if they don’t want a war, they should leave NATO and tell the Russians that they want peace. That you can avoid war by just not participating. That NATO are the baddies.
If there is a conflict in the Baltics or elsewhere, it’s possible that we may not be directly involved. The US may or may not need to use Shannon. That’s assuming the US helps: we can’t be certain with the new guy. He might want a deposit first.
But supposing the US requested the use of Shannon as an emergency landing facility, and it was followed up by a threat from the Russians that such use would make Shannon and its surrounds a military target. Would we tell the Russians to get stuffed? Or block the runway to stop damaged US planes from using it, possibly threatening the lives of US pilots, live on US television?
Either way, we’re suddenly involved.
Ireland doesn’t do war. That’s not to say the Irish don’t do war, as those thousands of Irish who fought in the allied forces can testify. Or those Irish who went during the Spanish civil war to fight against fascism (socialists, liberals and republicans) or to complain about the food (the blueshirts).
But as a country, war is something that happens to other people because they sort of like it or are a bit mad. If the Russians bombed us half the country would blame the Americans, waiting for the Russians to arrive so they can sue them for compensation.
Yet even in 1916, in the proclamation, we recognised the support of gallant allies. Would we have been outraged if tiny Estonia (which in fairness had its own problems in 1916) had sent troops to help fight during the Rising? Or would we fete them today as heroes and friends of Ireland? Yet if Estonia, a tiny free country dominated by a larger aggressive and imperialist neighbour asked for our help, our response would be “that’s not our problem”? Is it because we see ourselves not as a nation that shapes events but primarily as a victim nation that constantly needs help from others?
The truth is that if the Baltics asked for volunteers to help defend them, I suspect that there would not be a shortage of Irish volunteers willing to fight to defend other small free nations, even if collectively as a people we washed our hands of it.
After all, even in our own war of independence most people sat it out to see what side triumphed, then stormed in at the end claiming they were onside all along.
It’s an Irish tradition.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Amidst all the nonsense and hysteria of the most recent US election, Barack Obama gave an interview to Wired magazine where he talked about the impact of driverless vehicles. On the one hand, he suggested that driver error was the single greatest cause of fatalities on US roads, and that driverless vehicles would significantly reduce that. On the other hand, he pointed out that three million Americans earned a living driving everything from trucks to school-buses to taxis.
It was classic Obama. Slightly wonky, calm, measured, thoughtful. A rational discussion about future challenges and opportunities. Just wait and see how lucky we’ll all realise we were to have him as president of the United States when the next guy is sworn in.
But it made me think: are Irish politicians giving any thought to the future? Given the occasional hysteria about technology, especially in the Seanad which seems to regard anything beyond a flip-phone as high-falutin’, one would have one’s doubts.
I had a discussion with some work colleagues recently where I was a dismissed as a Cassandra for worrying about automation in the workplace and its effect on employment. It made me realise that you can’t blame Irish politicians for reflecting their voters’ concerns, or lack of. But don’t we pay these guys to be looking over the hill at what is coming next?
Consider this: Andrew Puzder, President-Elect Trump’s nominee as Labour secretary, the man tasked with managing employment rights in the US has as a fast food CEO openly speculated about replacing his staff with automated systems. Apparently robots won’t call in sick or strike or sue him for discrimination. This is real.
Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at the shifting balance between staff operating a till and the automated tills where you serve yourself. Remember when those tills were introduced for convenience? To avoid queuing behind that person in front of you who on reaching the till always seemed either startled by the concept of a paper-based money system or indeed that they had to pay at all? Now we queue to serve ourselves as the number of human servers dwindles.
Remember when every bus had a conductor? Is there anyone willing to say 100% that there’ll be no automation of the Luas? Ludicrous, they will say. Sure you can’t have a driverless train given how mad Dublin drivers are. But that’s not how it will happen. What will happen is that the trains will be automated but the drivers kept initially to “supervise”, allowing the company to gradually reduce numbers by natural wastage. Then we’ll all discover that the Luas has actually been automated for years. If you have been to Disneyland or through many major airports you’ve already been on an automated train.
The question for Irish (and every other western) society is how do we deal with the employment implications? Automation will push down labour costs as more people accept less wages for fewer jobs, until automation gets even cheaper. But in many instances jobs will be actually destroyed. The old argument about creative destruction still holds to a certain degree. Many former blacksmiths ended up building the cars that destroyed their old trades. But now those jobs are being replaced by robots in car factories. Some of the old car workers may well become engineers who design or build the robots, until robots start building and designing themselves. But at every stage the sheer volume of people needed to upskill to the next level gets less and less. That’s the point: it’s cheaper to make do with fewer but more highly skilled people.
That’s the challenge: not everybody can be a software engineer, and what do we do when the jobs beneath simply don’t exist in the same numbers? When a supermarket late shift has maybe two or three very modestly paid teenagers supervising 30 robots repacking shelves? There will of course be jobs that humans might be better at, such as senior care which we know will be a growth industry given western demographics, but lower paid repetitive jobs are ripe for technological obliteration. There may not be, quite simply, enough decent paying jobs to go around.
If the Dail is not thinking about this, then who is? Who should be planning for a future where labour exceeds demand, and where many of those with even with jobs barely exist on low wages? Is a universal basic income the answer? Is technology restriction? Is an expansion of public sector employment? Should we bring back jobs like bus conductors not because it will make buses more efficient, but to simply give people the dignity of work? Will we pay people to actually be artists and playwrights? How will we pay for it all?
We often look upon Ireland as a permanent victim nation, constantly battered by the decisions of greater nations or global forces. But we also have an advantage we rarely speak of: as a small nation we can change direction fast. From eradicating tuberculosis to switching to the euro, this country can do something fast if it wants to. But we have to have the vision. How do we start?
Perhaps it’s time for some of the younger members of the Oireachtas to put together an Oireachtas committee on the future, with a clear brief to bring in those looking at the problems of the future, from technology to senior care to employment to pensions.
Let’s at least begin the debate.
Posted by Jason O on Dec 3, 2016 in European Union
, Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Elites. There’s the villain of the day, the word bandied about by both the hard right and the hard left to signify those from whom all woe emanates. It’s a nice handy shorthand, and works everywhere. In Trumpian America, Brexit Britain, Le Pen’s France, Paul Murphy’s Ireland. If we could only get rid of elites, sure, wouldn’t we be in clover?
Yeah. I’ve yet to find a definition of “elite” which has common agreement. Is it the mega-rich? Not if you look at who just got elected to the White House on a Down-With-The-Elites platform. Is there anyone who thinks Donald Trump and the Republican congress is going to dismantle capitalism? Even his supporters don’t expect that.
Surely, if it were a revolt by the poor against their economic betters then Jeremy Corbyn would be topping the poll? Or the alphabet left in Ireland would be at least bumping around the same 25% in the polls that the distinctly counter-revolutionary Fianna Fail and Fine Gael each command? Marine Le Pen is certainly more economically left wing but even that’s more to do with populism than a dismantling of capitalism. Nigel Farage is a former City of London trader. The same struggling white working class who elected Trump also elected a majority Republican congress, a party that has systematically and unashamedly tried to dismantle the modest US welfare system.
Sure, you can point at Davos and Martha’s Vineyard and Blair and Clinton types all meeting in pretty salubrious surrounds, and of course the sharing of wealth is an issue.
But the reality is that when many talk about the elites they are talking about a group, even a class, that they say is not just economically but culturally apart.
Look at the breakdown of who voted Trump. 53% of white women voted that he was closer to their values than an actual white woman. 29% of Latinos voted for him. They saw something in him that they couldn’t see in Hillary Clinton. Was it that she represented some sort of elite disconnected from their lives?
Let’s look at this elite. Who are they? They’re pro-immigration, more secular than not, internationalist, pro-free trade, socially liberal, economically centrist.
Against them, we’re told that the “ordinary people” are nervous if not openly hostile to immigration, traditionally religious, nationalist and suspicious about it, against free trade and economically in favour of both lower taxes and higher spending.
The problem with the disconnected elite argument is that when you trace it through history, the liberal elite are right more often than they are wrong. It was the unrepresentative elite who pushed for an end to slavery. Votes for women. Desegregation. Indeed, all three were condemned at the time as being lofty interference from on high by pointy-headed intellectuals in their ivory towers. Desegregation was forced on the southern states of the United States almost completely against the democratic wishes of the people of those states. The fancy-pants liberal elite literally sent soldiers into those states to enforce elitist liberal laws that black children could attend the same schools as white children.
Take our own country. A liberal elite here scrapped the marriage ban in the civil service in a time when Fianna Fail had a motion at its Ard Fheis suggesting that married women in work were unfairly depriving others of work. Homosexuality was decriminalised without much national debate, with no party of significance taking a stand against, despite the fact that there probably was a significant minority opposed.
Having said that, our own constitution has probably helped in this regard, in that many changes on everything from the special position of the Catholic Church to divorce to marriage equality to the death penalty all had to go before the people. But movement on all were started by a small liberal elite whose views eventually became a majority view.
Across the west, the liberal elite has been right more often than it was wrong. It championed international cooperation on security (NATO) and economic prosperity (the EU) and on trade (the WTO). It pushed for the sanctions that toppled apartheid.
But more than anything else, it did details. That’s what made it work, and now threatens it.
The liberal international elite was the force that patiently negotiated the compromises that let an Irishman work in Estonia, or a Japanese car be bought in Belmullet. They negotiated the agreements that lets planes cross from one jurisdiction to another, using the same air traffic control protocols. That lets a man in Dublin buy insurance in Tokyo to safeguard a container being shipped to Helsinki.
Rail all you want about the WTO and NATO and TTIP and faceless international bureaucrats, but there are mortgages in Cork getting paid because a product shipped from Cork can go on a shelf in Beijing or Boston. It’s the elite that put those deals together.
The alternative offered by almost every opponent of the elite is to regard a slogan as a policy. Scrap NAFTA. Take Back Control. Build the wall.
Last week, a movie, “Arrival”, came out. It’s about a group of elite scientists desperately trying to communicate with newly-arrived vast alien spacecraft whilst shock-jock DJs are whipping up mobs to attack the alien ships under the slogan “Save our species”.
It’s a curiously appropriate metaphor for where we in the west find ourselves today.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 21, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
I’ve always been a science fiction fan. Not one of those “a thousand years in the future” types, but more of the shape of things to come in twenty or thirty years. As a result, I was always fascinated by dystopian movies like “The Children of Men” or “Escape from New York”, both of which take place, respectively, in a still recognizable Britain or US not too far in the future. In “Escape from New York”, the United States is ruled by a far-right president wreaking violence upon those who do not conform to his definition of traditional American (read Christian) values. The same applies to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, where the American establishment is toppled by misogynistic white male extremists who believe women should be second class citizens. It was the question of how we got from here to there which intrigued me.
This week, the voters of the United States will answer that question. How the richest, most progressive, most powerful nation in human history totters on the brink of very possibly sweeping that all away by electing a North American Peron. Never will the phrase “We’re ready to call Florida” induce so much stomach tightening terror as it will on Tuesday night.
Here in Ireland we can do very little about it. It’s America’s world, and we have to live in it, because the alternative is China’s world or Russia’s Europe. Funnily enough, it occurred to me during the week that the US could have made a fortune if it did let, for a handsome fee, foreigners elect two or three members of the electoral college, because we seem to appreciate how much more important it is than at least one in four Americans who won’t bother to vote. I suspect the whole adult population of Estonia would turn out to vote if they could.
There’s nothing we can do but learn our lessons. Trump is just the latest manifestation of a destructive hateful force sweeping across the world, from Farage to Putin to Le Pen to Geert Wilders. Hate is in. Just look at the UK this week, where UK judges who ruled that parliament is sovereign were demonised by newspapers that had only campaigned on that very subject back in June. Foreigners in the UK are keeping their heads, and voices down, for fear of attack. It’s not that racism has suddenly exploded in the UK after the Brexit vote any more than it has in the US or elsewhere, it’s that it has become socially more acceptable. The racists now believe that they speak for the silent majority, which is pretty much the line the Trumpistas take too.
As for Ireland? Could we see a rise in demagoguery? We certainly have no shortage of populists, but it is striking, indeed curious, that the race card has never really taken root here. There have been attempts to suggest that the citizenship referendum was some sort of indicator, but even the alphabet left don’t buy that. Know how I know? There’s no Repeal the Citizenship Amendment movement from them or anyone else.
It’s not that we don’t have racists in our society, but they seem to be trapped on the crazy fringe, always two sentences away from talking about bloodlines and “protecting our culture”. The sort of people who say “I’m completely against racism…against white people!” and think it’s a real rabbit out of the hat moment.
The scary thing about the race issue is that once it takes hold in a society, it’s impervious to facts. UKIP voters nearly always overestimate what percentage of the UK population is Muslim, non-white, or not born in the UK. But as Trump has proven, facts don’t matter to those voters.
A clear barrier to an Irish Trump would be the fact that Irish politics is personality centric. Who could be our Trump anyway? The only politician of recent years who had the sort of popular appeal of Donald Trump was Bertie, and he never showed any desire, to his credit, to divide people. But supposing an Evil Bertie did come along, a man of the people who whipped up fear about Muslims and black faces and “we need to look after our own people first” and all the rest. Who played the same well tested card about who is getting all the housing? Who is being let into the country? Why aren’t the refugees going to Muslim countries?
The other barrier to an Irish Trump is that geography nearly always beats ideology. An Irish Trump could be agreed with one hundred percent on the doors, but they then vote for the other guy because he “got the 46A stop moved for me granny”.
An Irish Trump would need to be a clear communicator, but not too polished. Ideally from a rural background, with a bit of GAA in their history but comfortable at a soccer match. Not an ideologue, because that’s where they always fail, thinking that being anti-immigrant means they have to be anti-gay and pro-life too. The assassinated Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn figured that one out years ago, recognising that voters aren’t ideologically strait-jacketed but like their views a la carte.
We think we wouldn’t be foolish enough to vote for an Irish Trump. But people forget: before Hitler there was no Hitler to warn us. As the line goes: the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.