Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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British politics needs a bit of Irish in it.

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

I came across an intriguing opinion poll by YouGov last week which gave an insight into the difference as to how Irish and British voters approach voting. The poll was questioning British voters as to how they would vote in the event of a second referendum on brexit. It offered voters three choices: remain, a “soft brexit” deal and “hard brexit”, what we call “no deal”.   

The poll addressed the issue of a remain win by splitting the brexit vote: the idea that if remain voters stay together and brexit voters split between the two brexit options remain would win a first past the post contest even though a majority of voters actually voted for brexit. It proposed a preferential voting system to ensure that the final result would have the support of over 50% of voters. What we in Ireland know as the single transferable vote.

For the benefit of those readers who are not familiar with preferential voting, quite simply it works like this: if you are faced with a number of choices you place the number one beside your favourite candidate, number two beside your second favourite candidate and so on.

By doing so you are essentially telling vote counters that “This is my first choice. If he/she/it cannot win,  I would like my vote to go to my second choice and so on until someone is elected. The idea being that your vote may not get your favourite candidate elected, but it will at least help elect someone less objectionable to you.

As a voting system it has been very successful in Ireland, as determined by the fact that both attempts to change it to first past the post, in 1959 and 1968 in referendums were both rejected by voters, in 1968 by a 20% margin.

What was interesting about the poll, however, was that it first asked voters to choose amongst the three options, and to make a second preference choice in the event the first choice was eliminated.

41% of those polled refused to offer a second preference.

Think about that for a minute. Think about it in the context of going into a restaurant and asking the waiter to bring you a steak. He says “I’m sorry sir, we’re out of steak, would you care to look at the menu for something else?”. Now, normally people would be disappointed that they couldn’t have the first choice but nevertheless look through the menu for something that they would be satisfied with. The 41% are essentially saying they’d like steak and if they can’t have steak they don’t want anything else and would rather go hungry.

From an Irish perspective, this is downright peculiar. The number of people in Irish elections who fail to transfer after their first preference is actually quite small because Irish voters recognise that even if one does not get the one’s first choice, you can still use your ballot to try and stop the option you detest the most. This matters because the brexit vote was the single most democratic act in British history since 1935: at no other time has any party or proposition won a majority of the vote on a turnout like that of June 2016.

I find it hard to believe, therefore, that there are large numbers on either side of the debate in Britain who have no view as to what would be the least worst option if they could not get brexit or remain. The idea that someone who voted for remain, if they knew that remain was going to lose would not prefer a soft brexit rather than the hard brexit seems to me to be quite bizarre.

In the same way I would assume that people who wish a hard brexit would prefer a soft brexit rather than to remain in the European Union.

There are those who could make the argument that if they thought that the choice was between remain and a soft brexit and they supported a full brexit they might actually prefer to remain in the European Union on the basis that soft brexit, as Tony Blair argues, is the worst of both worlds.

But 41% having no second opinion? Really? Unless it’s a case of “I’ve voted for what I want and I’ll burn down the place rather than consider a second slightly less attractive option” which is always possible, I suppose.  

Britain is not a complete stranger to the single transferable vote or as it is known in Britain, AV. They know the alternative vote having rejected it overwhelmingly in a referendum in 2011.

But things change. The reality is that a preferential voting system whether used in a single decision such as this or used in multi seat constituencies as in Dail elections and in Northern Ireland would resolve not just the issue of a final decision by the British people as to whether brexit should go ahead.

STV also offers British voters a solution to a problem which is currently poisoning their political system.

Take the current talk of a general election to settle the issue. It wouldn’t, because it can’t. The current first past the post electoral system is malfunctioning so badly that it could easily result in a majority of remain voters or a majority of leave voters winning the popular vote but being deprived of a fair voice in the parliament that resulted.

Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are so split that a general election just reveals that there are people who are trapped in political parties with people with whom they fundamentally disagree with on this issue and others, and the electoral system is forcing them to remain in that party and is forcing voters then to make false choices.

What does voting Tory mean in the next election if you vote for John Redwood or Ian Duncan Smith or Anna Soubry or Ken Clarke?

If you are a solid remain voter and decide to go the whole hog and vote Liberal Democrat you may in fact be splitting in the remain vote and helping brexiteers win. The same applies to UKIP voters wanting to vote pure brexit. They’ll drain brexit votes away from more viable brexit candidates.  

STV solves all this: there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. You can transfer your preferences from your first choice to other remain or brexit candidates as you see fit without hurting their chance of being elected. STV is the voter’s friend.  

The irony is that the single transferable vote is a British invention, devised by a British lawyer named Thomas Hare. Britain imposed it as part of the Anglo Irish treaty in an attempt to ensure that in Northern Ireland catholics will get fair representation, and the same in Southern Ireland for protestants.  It worked. So much so that the unionists abolished STV for Stormont elections as soon as they could.

A fair-minded citizen of the republic would have to admit that the single transferable vote was one of the greatest gifts the British actually gave the Irish people. It’s fair, transparent, and highly  entertaining to watch on the day of an election count.

It’s a system that has served us well, as it has the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Malta and India. As a means of healing the tension that has arisen between the UK and Ireland since June 2016 we could do a lot worse than offer to help Britain adopt the election system they gifted us nearly 100 years ago. Go on: it really is as easy as one two three.

 
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Would you die for Estonia?

Posted by Jason O on Nov 1, 2018 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

estonian-troopsPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

The story of the Choctaw nation of Native Americans donating $170 towards Irish famine relief in 1847 is not a new one. As a country, we’re well aware of this act of generosity by a community which had its own hardships and painful history. The donation always for me holds a special place as an extraordinary act of nobility and honour, a generous gesture towards a people of whom they knew little. Indeed any Irish that they encountered were more than likely members of the United States Army who are forcing Native Americans to leave their tribal lands as the United States expanded westwards.

I’m bringing up the Choctaw nation within the context of our ongoing national debate about neutrality. We’re not the first neutral country in these times to reexamine existing policies: Finland and Sweden have both opened formal communication lines with NATO, whereas Austria’s Freedom Party foreign policy leadership seems to be setting itself up as some form of Kremlin dance partner.

In looking at our own position, the example of the Choctaw should play a role. What would we do if a small nation like Estonia, on the Russian border, like us a nation with a shared history of brutal imperial oppression were to find its democratic sovereignty threatened once again by Russian force?

Is it our business?

If the Russians were a direct military threat from the air to us it means that NATO forces have probably collapsed right across Europe and we will be very much at the mercy of far more serious military outcomes than the odd Russian plane flying over Mayo or Donegal.

The army will be be far busier burning uniforms and burying arms to fight the occupation.

Therefore if we are to have a debate about neutrality it has to be one about morality and indeed about a sense of national honour. We have to decide what sort of nation we are, an exercise every thing from industrial schools to abortion proves we’re not great at.

Supposing the Kremlin provoked civil unrest in the Baltic states among the minority Russian communities and then used those public disturbances as a pretext to send Russian forces across the border to supposedly to protect their minority.

What would be the response of Ireland as a nation?

If Estonian or Lithuanian or Latvian governments pleaded with other free democracies to please send military aid to assist in the defence of their countries what would we as a nation say?

A cold-hearted analysis of national interest will probably come to the conclusion that in the short term this is not our problem. It’s true that we wouldn’t be found wanting in terms of grandstanding and demanding that the United Nations take some sort of action to prevent this. But we know full well that the United Nations is merely the sum of its parts and in a conflict between the Atlantic and the Kremlin the United Nations would be completely powerless.

Other than providing us with a platform from which to do some absolutely top class hand wringing, the people of Estonia watching their sons and daughters in combat gear on their streets, fighting Russian tanks door to door with machine guns and shoulder launched anti-armour missiles would take little comfort in our declarations of woe.

Nor would the rest of Europe, I suspect, as their soldiers fought and died in the Baltics to try and liberate those three countries.  

Let’s be clear: the contribution of our permanent defence forces to fighting in the Baltics would be very very limited indeed. As a result of PESCO and other cooperation within the EU and also recent expenditure by both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments our military are far more compatible now with the militaries of the rest of Europe in terms of capability, compatibility and equipment. But our contribution would still be fairly limited, probably to no more than a few hundred troops and aside from special forces probably more in terms of support, explosive ordnance and battlefield medical aid.

But that doesn’t mean that an Irish contribution does not matter.

1000 professional and well equipped troops from Europe’s 10 smallest countries is suddenly 10,000 troops which is not an insignificant number in the highly mobile fighting that will almost certainly occur in such a conflict. That’s why our troops need to train with other EU troops to maintain tactical compatibility so that at least we as every other country in Europe has will have the capability to contribute towards of the defence of our continent if we so choose.

That still leaves us with the fundamental question: would we contribute troops, knowing full well that it is almost guaranteed that many will not come back alive.

Should our soldiers be allowed be allowed refuse to go?

I’ve no doubt that the debate would be furious, widespread, emotional and above all incredibly divisive with the default position being not to send troops and that it is none of our business.

The problem with that position is that it will not be in isolation. Not only will Ireland be watched by the rest of Europe as to where it stands, but also let us not forget the thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians who live in our country, work beside us, who we are married to and have children with.

We suddenly turn to to them and tell them to their faces that your family dying from Russian invasion is not our problem? We just don’t care?

Nor will we be able to turn our backs on the refugees from the Baltic states, many of whom presumably will flee to Ireland as possibly one of the safest places in Europe.

Refugees who are EU citizens and have as much a right to come here as anywhere else and many of whom will have family here ready to provide shelter and refuge from the war.

Maybe we will try to say that providing refuge is our contribution to the war effort, that we can be like the Choctaw and perhaps those countries will be grateful not for the prowess of our fighting men and women but for the fact that whilst their fighting men and women fight the Russians we will make sure that their families will be safe and sheltered and cared for.

Perhaps that will be the Irish contribution and it would not be an insignificant one.

Finally there is always the option that the Irish have always exercised, from the days of the Wild Geese through to World War II, Vietnam and even today in the modern French Foreign Legion.  That Ireland as a nation does not fight, but that many of its young men and women go off and fight under a different flag, perhaps the flags of the Baltic states or Finland or Britain or France or Poland?

Perhaps the minister for defence should quietly ask the chief of staff to put in place a procedure where Irish soldiers who wished to fight alongside their continental colleagues could be quietly put on indefinite sabbatical and discreetly transported, with their equipment but without Irish flags on their uniforms to fight alongside whichever armed forces they would join.

I have no doubt in my mind that there will be no shortage of Irish volunteers to play the part of the defence of our continent.

In short, perhaps Ireland will not go to war but the Irish will?

 
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Should we look at a Universal Basic Income? Dare we?

Posted by Jason O on Oct 3, 2018 in Irish Politics

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition: 

The concept of politicians using public money to win votes is an old one. One can trace the phrase “bread and circuses” right back to imperial Rome, and listening to last week’s debate on the so-called “Granny grant” it’s fair to say the concept is alive and well in Ireland.

What caught my eye about the debate was the particularly Irish flavour to it. I’d been reading about the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the granny grant debate made me change direction: not just to look at UBI but look at it through the prism of Irish politics.

Both UBI and the granny grant have superficial similarities.

Both are, on the face of it, about giving “free” money, not that there ever is such a thing, to voters.

But then they diverge.

The granny grant is a barely disguised “Please, for the love of Jesus, vote for me” ploy.

UBI is a thoughtful concept that could potentially revolutionize modern society.

What unites them?

Watching last week’s debate, the near certainty that both will become sordid and a waste of good money if Irish politicians are let get their sweating paws all over them.

The granny grant is just plain nonsense. It would probably be cheaper to let Shane Ross walk up and down the streets of Dublin-Rathdown with a security van behind him, handing out €50 notes to all comers.

At least we wouldn’t have the pretend bureaucracy and could all be honest about what’s going on here.

But the basic income concept, which keeps popping up across the west, is a whole different beast. The idea is not to get a politician re-elected, but to radically reform the welfare state and prepare society for the possibility of a more automated age of underemployment.

The core of UBI is that every resident gets a fixed guaranteed income from the state every month.

Regardless of income, without any means-testing, straight into your bank account.

You don’t have to lift a finger, do a training course, sign on, prove you’re searching for work.

Sounds like a populist socialist utopia, right?

The funny thing about UBI is that both the socialist left and the free market right see something attractive in it, to such a degree that it’s like neither side fully grasp what they’re looking at.

For the left it’s liberating. A safety net for all. No more pushy welfare bureaucrats hassling you.

For the right it’s also liberating. No more pushy welfare bureaucrats.

See what I did there?

It’s at this point the left shift uneasily.

Because that’s the point of UBI. It permits the state to shrink: who needs welfare bureaucrats if people just get the money without quibble?

Then there’s the abolition of most other welfare payments, which is how you fund it, and also get rid of the welfare trap.

People are no longer discouraged from working because the danger of losing their existing welfare payments will no longer exist.

In short UBI would reward those who choose to work.

In fact, if you want those in receipt of a basic income to benefit from the new means-test free ability to work it may then make more sense to abolish the concept of a minimum wage.

This is because such a system would then permit employers to create a much greater variety of piecemeal opportunities for extra earning, at a lower rate than the current minimum wage.

If you think this sounds very right wing, almost Dickensian, you’re probably right.

But what if it encouraged older workers with lower living costs to retire earlier, letting them focus on the volunteer work they currently do in their spare time? Are there people that UBI would allow to focus primarily on their Tidy Towns committee or coaching the local u16s team?

Socially, would that be a bad thing? I suspect not.

Having said that, there are also solid left wing arguments against the basic income.

It’s universality, the idea that everybody should get it would, you’d expect, ensure that there is broad popular support for it, as there is for the NHS in the UK or children’s allowance here.

But that very universality means that resources which would traditionally have been targeted to the poor through a means-tested system will now end up in the hands of, in many cases, people who do not actually need the additional income.  

This is a big issue because as we have seen in the United States a social welfare system that is not seen to be applicable to all classes means that there is no broad political consent for it.  Since the 1960s the right-wing of the Republican party has campaigned on a nudge nudge wink wink platform that social welfare is not for the white working classes but only for the fabled black welfare queens of Ronald Reagan.

It’s a huge quandary at the heart of any society that wishes to debate whether to accept a basic income or not. By its very nature building broad support is a good thing, but what if it increases the likelihood of the poor getting less money under the new system?

Not that UBI is right-wing to the the purist libertarian ultra-right. You know the sort, guys who want to abolish the US Food and Drug Administration, or the European Medicines Agency. They want “the market” to decide about medication.

You know, if a new medicine kills enough people, people will stop buying it. That short of fruitcakery.

They think UBI is dirty socialist wealth redistribution, which, in fairness, it is to a degree, as it will require higher taxes to fund it.

But the more thoughtful people on the right have accepted that capitalism, in its ability to adapt as needed, needs broad support throughout society to survive. Capitalism has always been about recognising that a certain degree of wealth redistribution from top to bottom is required to maintain an economic system which is based essentially on a peaceful consensus and the rule of both property and contract law.

That’s the deal: some people to get very rich and in return a proportion of the wealth they create gets distributed to the parts of society that do not benefit to the same degree as others. It’s yet another variation of the post-war social contract that created a thriving middle-class in the years following 1945.

As a theory, UBI is intriguing. But what happens if it comes into contact with our own home based pols like Shane Ross and his merry men, who have proven that the temptation for Irish politicians to just keep spending other people’s money is almost impossible to resist.

Imagine Ireland managed to scrap the entire social welfare and pension system and replace it all with a non means-tested basic income scheme.

Is there any doubt that Irish politicians would not immediately start to identify sections of Irish society (read: voters) whom they believe merit special treatment and therefore deserve additional payments? It wouldn’t be long before the entire system would becomes unaffordable as Irish politicians continue to allocate more and more spending for the simple reason that they literally cannot think of any other way of getting reelected.

UBI has both compelling strengths and worrying side-effects, but it is, at least, an opening to a debate about employment in an age of mass underemployment.

But could it survive direct contact with the Land of the granny grant?

I have my doubts.

 
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We need to take the lead on tax harmonisation.

Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us. The island between Boston and Berlin.

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

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

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

 
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British politics needs a bit of Irish in it.

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

I came across an intriguing opinion poll by YouGov last week which gave an insight into the difference as to how Irish and British voters approach voting. The poll was questioning British voters as to how they would vote in the event of a second referendum on brexit. It offered voters three choices: remain, a “soft brexit” deal and “hard brexit”, what we call “no deal”.

The poll addressed the issue of a remain win by splitting the brexit vote: the idea that if remain voters stay together and brexit voters split between the two brexit options remain would win a first past the post contest even though a majority of voters actually voted for brexit. It proposed a preferential voting system to ensure that the final result would have the support of over 50% of voters. What we in Ireland know as the single transferable vote.

For the benefit of those readers who are not familiar with preferential voting, quite simply it works like this: if you are faced with a number of choices you place the number one beside your favourite candidate, number two beside your second favourite candidate and so on.

By doing so you are essentially telling vote counters that “This is my first choice. If he/she/it cannot win,  I would like my vote to go to my second choice and so on until someone is elected. The idea being that your vote may not get your favourite candidate elected, but it will at least help elect someone less objectionable to you.

As a voting system it has been very successful in Ireland, as determined by the fact that both attempts to change it to first past the post, in 1959 and 1968 in referendums were both rejected by voters, in 1968 by a 20% margin.

What was interesting about the poll, however, was that it first asked voters to choose amongst the three options, and to make a second preference choice in the event the first choice was eliminated.

41% of those polled refused to offer a second preference.

Think about that for a minute. Think about it in the context of going into a restaurant and asking the waiter to bring you a steak. He says “I’m sorry sir, we’re out of steak, would you care to look at the menu for something else?”. Now, normally people would be disappointed that they couldn’t have the first choice but nevertheless look through the menu for something that they would be satisfied with. The 41% are essentially saying they’d like steak and if they can’t have steak they don’t want anything else and would rather go hungry.

From an Irish perspective, this is downright peculiar. The number of people in Irish elections who fail to transfer after their first preference is actually quite small because Irish voters recognise that even if one does not get the one’s first choice, you can still use your ballot to try and stop the option you detest the most. This matters because the brexit vote was the single most democratic act in British history since 1935: at no other time has any party or proposition won a majority of the vote on a turnout like that of June 2016.

I find it hard to believe, therefore, that there are large numbers on either side of the debate in Britain who have no view as to what would be the least worst option if they could not get brexit or remain. The idea that someone who voted for remain, if they knew that remain was going to lose would not prefer a soft brexit rather than the hard brexit seems to me to be quite bizarre.

In the same way I would assume that people who wish a hard brexit would prefer a soft brexit rather than to remain in the European Union.

There are those who could make the argument that if they thought that the choice was between remain and a soft brexit and they supported a full brexit they might actually prefer to remain in the European Union on the basis that soft brexit, as Tony Blair argues, is the worst of both worlds.

But 41% having no second opinion? Really? Unless it’s a case of “I’ve voted for what I want and I’ll burn down the place rather than consider a second slightly less attractive option” which is always possible, I suppose.  

Britain is not a complete stranger to the single transferable vote or as it is known in Britain, AV. They know the alternative vote having rejected it overwhelmingly in a referendum in 2011.

But things change. The reality is that a preferential voting system whether used in a single decision such as this or used in multi seat constituencies as in Dail elections and in Northern Ireland would resolve not just the issue of a final decision by the British people as to whether brexit should go ahead.

STV also offers British voters a solution to a problem which is currently poisoning their political system.

Take the current talk of a general election to settle the issue. It wouldn’t, because it can’t. The current first past the post electoral system is malfunctioning so badly that it could easily result in a majority of remain voters or a majority of leave voters winning the popular vote but being deprived of a fair voice in the parliament that resulted.

Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are so split that a general election just reveals that there are people who are trapped in political parties with people with whom they fundamentally disagree with on this issue and others, and the electoral system is forcing them to remain in that party and is forcing voters then to make false choices.

What does voting Tory mean in the next election if you vote for John Redwood or Ian Duncan Smith or Anna Soubry or Ken Clarke?

If you are a solid remain voter and decide to go the whole hog and vote Liberal Democrat you may in fact be splitting in the remain vote and helping brexiteers win. The same applies to UKIP voters wanting to vote pure brexit. They’ll drain brexit votes away from more viable brexit candidates.  

STV solves all this: there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. You can transfer your preferences from your first choice to other remain or brexit candidates as you see fit without hurting their chance of being elected. STV is the voter’s friend.  

The irony is that the single transferable vote is a British invention, devised by a British lawyer named Thomas Hare. Britain imposed it as part of the Anglo Irish treaty in an attempt to ensure that in Northern Ireland catholics will get fair representation, and the same in Southern Ireland for protestants.  It worked. So much so that the unionists abolished STV for Stormont elections as soon as they could.

A fair-minded citizen of the republic would have to admit that the single transferable vote was one of the greatest gifts the British actually gave the Irish people. It’s fair, transparent, and highly  entertaining to watch on the day of an election count.

It’s a system that has served us well, as it has the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Malta and India. As a means of healing the tension that has arisen between the UK and Ireland since June 2016 we could do a lot worse than offer to help Britain adopt the election system they gifted us nearly 100 years ago. Go on: it really is as easy as one two three.

 
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An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Curse of the Shoo-In Candidate.

pol books2It’s a uniquely Irish concept. In other countries, parties brag about how well their candidate is doing. Not in Ireland. In Ireland, candidates, especially ones defending a seat, play up how desperate things are, how bad the campaign is going, how “the seat is gone”. There is nothing a candidate hates more than people saying she’s a dead cert, because in Ireland that’s political death. More people have gone into an election as the dead cert and come out with less votes than Gary Glitter at a National Association of Creches AGM.

It’s all to do with the second guessing poker nature of the Single Transferable Vote system. STV is a logical, rational and fair voting system which gives voters a wider choice than almost any voting system in the world. It asks voters to select their candidates in order of preference. As a result, there’s little chance of wasting one’s vote on an unelectable candidate.

But it never expected that it would have to deal with the Irish psyche, and voters who don’t just consider who they’d like to elect, but who they think other people are going to elect too, and so discount their own vote and transfer their vote to their second choice in the hope of getting a second bite of the cherry. It’s hardly surprising, as this is exactly the same way Irish people choose their third level educational future through the Central Applications Office. They’re asked to pick what course they really want, and instead enter what course they think they’ll get, and are then disappointed when they miss the course they actually wanted in the first place. They then vote the same way.

As a result, you have party voters who decide that Party X’s candidate A is a definite, and so instead gives their first preference to candidate A’s running mate, to give her a chance at taking a second seat for the party. The problem is that large numbers of candidate A’s loyal voters are all thinking the same thing, and so the running mate gets elected and candidate A is surprisingly defeated to the shock of all, with voters looking blankly at each other with a “Jaysus, if I’d only known. Sure everybody I know said they wanted him in!”

How do you prevent it? Vote for your favourite candidate first. It really is that simple. Really.

 
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eNovella: A Little Piece of Europe.

The very near future. Welcome to the European Union Safezone in North Africa.

2 million refugees trying to make a life in a city-state on the edge of Europe.

For the disgraced former British prime minister and his Irish deputy put in charge of running it, a chance at redemption.

For the refugee Syrian businessman, it’s a chance at a new life for his family.

For the young Somali woman fleeing terror, it’s a chance to perhaps no longer be afraid.

For the young Islamic State operative, it’s a chance to strike at the west… 

Now available as an eBook on Amazon here.

ALPOE cover

 

 
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The pro-life campaign warns us of wavering future politicians. Didn’t they waver on the right to travel?

Posted by Jason O on May 13, 2018 in Irish Politics, Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

A version of this was previous published in The Times Ireland Edition: 

If early campaign awards were to be given out at this stage of the abortion referendum, you’d have to give them to the anti-repeal campaign. Their posters have been textbook examples of communicating simple effective messages: one in five pregnancies end in abortion in the UK, licence to kill? (with that non-judgmental ask-yourself question mark) , after 11 weeks, etc. There’s also that very subtle message aimed at people who just don’t want this sort of thing in the constitution: can you really trust politicians, if the amendment is repealed, to not start passing liberal abortion-on-demand laws in the future?

Even the phrase abortion-on-demand is nicely provocative, conjuring up an image of a foetus-hating angry feminist demanding a termination with fist hammering on counter. You never hear the phrase dentistry-on-demand.

The funny thing about the politicians message is that it does have a ring of truth to it, because we have seen one group of people move in Ireland after a referendum from outright opposition to becoming more flexible on abortion because it was politically convenient.

The pro-life campaign.

In the three 1992 abortion referendums, on information, travel and what we then called the “substantive issue”, large elements of the pro-life coalition campaigned against the right to travel, using, in their advocacy, all the messages the pro-life campaign now use. That a woman utilizing the right to travel was travelling to carry out all the acts which are now described in the anti-repeal posters.

Interestingly, Youth Defence opposed the right to travel but were curiously honest in admitting that the problem being committed during the X case was not seeking an abortion but actually informing the government that one was seeking an abortion, thus embarrassing the state into acting, and that the right to travel was not needed for those women who would quietly leave the country. Of course, if the right to travel had been rejected it would not be unreasonable to have expected many pro-lifers to have seized such a result as a mandate to crackdown on women travelling to seek abortions.

The right to travel passed anyway, the only time until now that the Irish people have not been asked to vote to restrict abortion but to grant access to it, albeit anywhere else but in Ireland. It passed by a not unimpressive 62% which told us a lot about the Irish psyche. The whole country chose to look the other way as we sent women onto planes or car ferries, clutching the information we had the decency to allow them to get before setting out on their journeys.

Jesus, we were all heart, so we were.  

I’ll be honest. Since then, it’s always bugged me. How can one be against abortion, in favour of the protection of the unborn, but only in a geographical sense? How can one believe that something is a legal entity with rights here, but move it a few feet over a legal border, and one no longer believes in those rights?

When I ask friends of mine who are pro-life how they justify that, the defence is always the same: Ireland can’t be responsible for what abortion laws apply in the UK. But that’s a cop-out, because it isn’t answering my question. My question is why has the pro-life movement abandoned opposition to the right to travel? Why aren’t they trying to repeal that?

The answer they give is that it is not practical to enforce a travel ban on women seeking abortions, but again, that’s not true. If they truly believed in defending every unborn life they’d advocate repeal of the 13th amendment, then set up an Office for the Protection of the Unborn. They’d require every doctor to register every pregnancy they encounter, and track every pregnancy to its conclusion, and prosecute those women who could not account for their full pregnancies. We could have a national confidential line where people could inform the OPU of women they suspect were going to seek an abortion. In short, the state would be carrying out what it is required to do as per the 8th amendment, “guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” We have the technology to do all this, and we can afford it. What’s lacking is the political will.

When I say this to pro-life friends they come back with the “as far as practicable” argument, that it just is not realistic to expect the Irish state to do that. But apply that argument to child sex trafficking or female genital mutilation, and tell me that it is none of the Irish state’s business to interdict an Irish child being sent abroad for FGM or to be trafficked into slavery.

Will those same people shrug their shoulders and say that if someone wishes to escort an Irish child from Ireland to another jurisdiction to be sexually abused, that’s just not our problem? Really?

We have the resources and the technology to enforce a ban on travelling to seek an abortion, or to at least punish those who do and use that punishment as a deterrent to protect the unborn.

Is it all a bit Handmaid’s Tale? Of course it is. It would be loopy, and God forbid a foreign national was impregnated by an Irish citizen and then detained in Ireland against her will to prevent her seeking an abortion. We’d go from the Ireland of Panti to the Ireland of the Ayatollah in days. If she was French President Macron would have the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier in Dublin Bay within hours and French paratroopers grabbing her faster than you could say “Raid on Entebbe”.

The reality is that most of the pro-life movement don’t want to touch the right to travel because they know, rightly, that it would be a political lost cause. The Irish people would not tolerate it, as they didn’t tolerate it in 1992. Indeed if there is one vote in the history of the Irish as a sovereign people that underlines our ducky-divey approach to morality, it’s our willingness to decide it by geography.

But the decision by the pro-life movement to turn a blind eye to travel is politically astute. In short, given a choice between even making the argument to try to save those unborn who will be sent to the UK, they don’t even want to try. It would cost votes.

But given we can live in a country where every party is “committed” to the restoration of the Irish language, why don’t we have even a few pro-life TDs symbolically trying to restrict the right to travel, to protect those unborn? Because votes wins every time.  

Does that make them hypocrites? No more than the rest of us, in fairness.

But a little less of the high moral horse, if you don’t mind.  

The reality is that when I look at those posters telling me about what they perceive to be the evils of abortion, I’m reminded that the people who put them up are not as much pro-life as just slightly less pro-choice than me.

By about 100 kilometres to my right.        

 
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What if Ireland hadn’t been partitioned in 1921?

Posted by Jason O on May 13, 2018 in Fiction, Irish Politics
DEV: PROBABLY STILL END UP RUNNING THE PLACE.

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 who would presumably have taken their seats in the Dail, and so would have passed the treaty by an overwhelming majority.

Read more…

 
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In defence of elites.

Posted by Jason O on Apr 15, 2018 in European Union, Irish Politics

The Times ScreenshotPreviously 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.

Copyright © 2018 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.