Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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20 Years ago I put my name on a ballot paper…

Posted by Jason O on May 18, 2019 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

PD Canvass card

Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.

I was reminded recently that this year’s local elections mark 20 years since I dipped my toe into the electoral pond as a candidate for the Progressive Democrats in Dublin City Council elections. Looking back on the adventure that was my running for election in the Pembroke ward I think I can say with accuracy that be 94% of the voting electorate who cast their first preference vote for candidates other than me displayed far more sense and insight into my potential as a city councillor than I knew myself at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that I would have been a pretty bad councillor. It’s not that I would not have approached the job with good intentions or a lack of seriousness but rather that I now recognise the huge volume of work that is required to be a successful, that is, re-elected public representative.

Read more…

 
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Don’t think we’re immune to Brexitism.

Posted by Jason O on Apr 21, 2019 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Marine-LePenPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

You’ve probably seen that clip recently of over three thousand new Irish citizens being sworn in at the Gleneagles centre in Killarney. Those citizenship ceremonies, an initiative of Alan Shatter when he was justice minister may well turn out to be his greatest ministerial legacy. They’re a huge improvement on the old system, where people turned up at an old drafty courthouse and took an oath with little pomp or ceremony and I have to admit bring a certain moistening to my eyes every time I see the happiness on the faces of the people becoming citizens of our great country.

It’s a big deal, and a big contrast to the UK. Whereas our taoiseach lauded them and their contribution to our country, next door Theresa May was unveiling her stripping of British and EU citizens rights to live and work across the EU and UK with disturbing salivation. Gavin Esler, the former BBC journalist and now novelist remarked on the juxtaposition, pointing out Leo’s welcome marked the country as “a place where new arrivals enrich a country and are not referred to as “queue jumpers.”

 

As a progressive liberal, one could easily drown in one’s sense of smug satisfaction, living in a country which, by eurobarometer standards, is the most pro-EU in Europe, has just elected an intellectual lefty poet as president by a landslide, became the first country in the world to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote, and finally resolved the unpleasantness that was the 8th amendment.

 

One could easily think Ireland is bulletproof from a liberal standpoint.

 

Think again. It would not take a lot to move this country into a Hungarian-style populist fury, burning EU flags and where non-whites  live in terror.

 

We must never forget that as a people we are terribly susceptible to group-think. We desperately want to fit in, not be the outlier with the awkward opinion. Our political class is stuffed with mob panderers pretending to stand up for some innocuous principle and “not caring who knows it”, all the while making sure they’re on the least unpopular side of an issue.

 

One of the biggest dangers in the western democracies, including ourselves, is complacency and the belief that human rights only ratchet in one direction. The death penalty was illegal in the United States from 1972 to 1976. For most of the 1980s and 1990s the idea of Britain leaving the European Community was the argument mostly of marginal cranks.

 

It’s simply not that incredible to imagine a scenario where 35%-40% of Irish voters could support withdrawal from a future EU. Polls currently showing support for Irish membership of the EU at 92% suggest to me widespread but not very deep support for the EU, which could turn given the right conditions.

The first condition for Irexit (Or EireGo! as I call it) would be a credible party advocating it. No major party in Ireland currently supports it, but let’s not forget that Sinn Fein is only relatively new to supporting EU membership. Indeed, the party has spent more of my adult life supporting withdrawal than membership. It also can’t be ignored that the DUP’s hysterical opposition and paranoia about the EU contributed to Sinn Fein’s ability to support the EU on the “If themmuns are agin’ it, it must be doing something right” platform.

In 1972 Labour, now one of our most pro-European parties, campaigned against us joining. DeValera himself, ensconced at the Áras at the time, was reputedly against us joining the EEC and apparently voted against.

At the same time the Tories were very much the European party in the UK, with Labour the little Englander party. Now it’s hard to imagine a new openly pro-EU prospective candidate getting through a Conservative selection convention. Parties change.

It’s not hard to imagine a future Fianna Fail, frustrated with opposition, opening the door to moderate euro-criticism and then getting hooked on the support from latent eurosceptics who do indeed exist in the country.

The next condition would be economic.

A recession, cuts to public services, and suddenly the fact that we have been nett contributors to the EU since 2014 and will pay the EU €2.7 billion this year (although we will get back about €1.8 billion in EU funding) suddenly becomes a public debating point. Never forget the curious pride the Irish have in seeing ourselves as a poor downtrodden nation. The argument, for which we are the actual living embodiment, that investing in EU funds in poorer EU countries creates future markets for your products won’t carry much water against tax rises or cuts in public spending.

Don’t think that we’re immune to the anti-immigrant thing either.

We’ve just been fortunate that so far it has been pitched by dopes.  

Imagine a clean-cut Mammy’s Favourite Lovely Young Man Micheál Martin-style (not him personally, obviously. He’s solid on Europe and will have no truck with racism) candidate, an articulate Peter Casey talking about housing shortages and waiting lists and how “we must put our own first” without coming across as a neo-nazi.

Imagine such a party leader standing up to Brussels a la Viktor Orban, trying to disperse refugees across Europe, talking about elites. It wouldn’t take long, in an Ireland still racked by obscene housing costs and shortages, for refugees and the EU to be identified as the source of our woes.

The desire of the rest of Europe to actually defend itself, a concept that is regarded as alien to most of the Irish population, could be another source of Irexiteer growth. It’s not impossible to imagine a future EU insisting that a substantial part of the EU budget be directed at defence. An Irexit party could make, I suspect, plenty of hay wanting to know why Irish taxpayer money is funding tanks protecting Estonia and not building houses in Ringsend?  

That’s all assuming there is a credible Irexit party in Ireland with credible candidates, something which I suspect is much harder to achieve than it appears. I also suspect that the sort of people agitated by Irexit and asylum seekers and abortion are less likely to be willing to do the constituency graft that in Ireland builds critical voting mass.

But here’s a different scenario: what about a Irexit supported by the current mainstream parties?

Impossible?

What if the EU were to fundamentally change?

Picture a future Europe with Marine Le Pen in the Elysee, Alternativ fur Deutschland in coalition in Germany, Salvini in Italy, Orban in Hungary, all planning to “do something” about the Muslims in Europe. Imagine if Putin offered to “host” a vast refugee camp in occupied Ukraine in return for Europe turning a blind eye to the tightening Russian stranglehold on that country.

Consider the spectacle of Irish naval ships pulling migrants out of the Mediterranean as they do now, and then handing them over to an EU border force which loads them at machine gun point onto trains to the Ukraine, no longer our problem? Would that be an EU we’d wish to be part of?

 

I sometimes get accused of pushing out the fantasy i bit too much in these columns. In response, I always remind people of one simple fact.

 

In the May 1928 Reichstag elections the Nazi party got 2.6% and 12 seats out of 491.

Just over five years later, they got all the seats.

Every single one.

Freedom is fragile, and what we cherish has to be fought for every single day.    

 
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An Occasional Guide to Irish Politics: The Scandal.

Posted by Jason O on Mar 20, 2019 in Irish Politics, Not quite serious.
Our elite legal system swings into action!

Our elite legal system swings into action!

A regular re-post, originally written in 2009…

Given the moral failings of the Irish as a race, it is hardly surprising that there is a clear and tested timeline to every scandal which besets Irish society, whether it is moral, political, social or financial. The timeline is as such:

1. Issue emerges. Country particularly mortified at how the British media cover it.

2. Public gasps at details. Sunday papers revel in particularly gory details. Fintan O’Toole writes a pithy piece which explains the cogent details very succinctly, and then drizzles it in extra-virgin head shaking like a nice salad.

3. Opposition call for unspecified action (“Something must be done! We need action!”) or specific action outside the power of the government. (“Bishops must resign! The effect on water of gravity must be reversed!”)

4. Government shakes heads, and promises that said event (Clerical child abuse/flooding/banking corruption/asteroid crashing into the Earth) must never be permitted to happen again, and calls for commission to investigate report of commission which investigated incident.

5. Media, political establishment, voters, realising that they actually play golf/went to school/are second cousin of individuals named in report, start calling for “due process” to be observed, and instead focus on details of events as if they were some abstract natural disaster.

6. The lawyers get involved. People’s right to “their good name”, passing of time, death of witnesses, gums up process of pursuit of actual criminals, drags investigations, trials, etc, in and out of high court for years.

7. Government takes money off people who did not commit these crimes (Taxes), and gives it to victims. The perpetrators contribution is eaten up in legal fees.

8. Some public officials take early retirement, on full pension. Which is pretty much the equivalent of a modest win in the National Lottery. Nobody goes to jail, except maybe a journalist who reveals how this thing is panning out, and is done for contempt of court.

9. In general election, Irish people vote for same people who allowed scandal to occur, on basis that although he/she failed to act to prevent sexual assault of children/building houses underwater, etc, he/she was always “very good for the area.”

10. In 10 years, another commission reports on poor handling of this scandal. Reset to step 1.

 
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LPT debate reveals the last great taboo of Irish politics.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 26, 2018 in Irish Politics

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

Many years ago I was asked to carry out a workplace investigation involving an employee who was accused of being rude and aggressive towards his fellow employees. He wasn’t Irish, and I was surprised at the allegations as I’d always found him to be perfectly reasonable and courteous. I gathered evidence, listened to the people who were making the complaint, and made sure that I was discreetly in his vicinity during many of his dealings with individuals.
Very quickly the problem became clear.
He wasn’t actually being aggressive or rude in any objective sense. What he was being was very straightforward in his dealings with his overwhelmingly Irish colleagues, to the point of brusqueness. He spoke with a very clear, very proper received pronunciation accent. Objectively, he was fine, but to Irish ears, used to someone going around the houses in both conversation and in requests, his bluntness was very sharp indeed.
I pulled him aside for a discreet chat, and he was appalled at hearing that he had upset people. Soon he was learning to be as vague and obtuse as any Irishman.
We’re not a straightforward people. If dancing around an issue were an Olympic sport we’d be collectively dripping in gold. I was reminded once again of this at times unhelpful trait listening to discussions last week about the possibility of Local Property Tax (LPT) valuations being looked at again in 2019.
There were so many Irish people dancing around the subject that I was waiting for a stirring Bill Whelan soundtrack to accompany it.
Let’s be very unIrish and cut straight to the chase.
The purpose of LPT is to raise tax revenue for the provision of public services. Whether provided by the county council or national government, that’s how it is spent.
LPT is levied on the valuation of property to permit for a wider more stable taxbase focused on a high value asset.
The high value asset in particular, property, has a tendency to rise in value, particularly in this nation of aspiring Bull McCabes, thus requiring revaluation on relatively regular basis.
As a general rule, there tends to be a connection between owning a high value asset and wealth. Not always, but more often than not. Certainly enough that a country serious about maintaining a stable and varied taxbase simply can’t afford to ignore it.
Therefore, if you want to maintain or increase public spending you have to be willing to look at increasing sources of taxation and LPT is the obvious candidate.
If you don’t want to increase LPT, which is a perfectly reasonable desire, then you must be willing to forgo increases in spending.
There’s the taboo, the last great unmentionable in Irish public life that neither voters nor the candidates seeking their first preferences wish to speak of, the “Scottish Play” of Irish life.
That taxes like LPT are directly linked to the services one wishes to receive from the state.
Wash your mouth out with soap and water, using that filthy talk!
Poor old Pascal Donohoe, Minister for Loaves & Fishes, comes barrelling onto the stage doing his best Flatley, desperately trying to figure out a way of paying for stuff with a tax that nobody wants to pay.So instead we dance around the issue.
That it’s an anti-Dublin tax.
That there is no connection between what is collected and what is spent locally, or at least, it isn’t visible.
Then there’s the old chestnut voiced by every party when in opposition and ignored in government: local government reform. Reform being code in Irish politics for “We reckon voters like to hear us talk about change, which we’re against, so let’s talk endlessly about the need for consensus before we change anything.” Remember when we were promised that if you voted for Seanad retention, a reformed upper house would be just around the corner? That aul guff. Anything to avoid having to debate the kernel of the issue in public.
Where I live, in the fine county of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, we have a good council. We have brand new very impressive children’s playgrounds and a very swish new library. Who decided to spend the money on them? I have no idea, because how decisions are made are so vague that I just assume it’s nothing to do with the elected councillors and instead every to do with the county chief executive and his team.
That’s not me being cynical about councillors, just recognising our system: the county manager spends our taxes, the councillors do a form of weekly interpretative dance as to his decisions. But ask yourself this: if you’re not happy with how the council is run, who do you fire at election time?
We should confront reality. Reevaluate property values as planned, but let councils have 100% control over LPT rates. If some counties are experiencing sharp upticks in property values, then all the more reason for those counties to cut the rate of LPT to ensure that those owners still pay similar actual cash amounts as before reevaluation.
Say this to the political class and they baulk at the idea, for one fair reason. Do that, they say, and “other” councillors (never them, you understand) will just slash the LPT to zero and then blame everybody else for the massive cuts in services that will lead to.
They’re probably right.
Which leads me back to the fact that in order to have tax accountability voters must know exactly who sets their taxes and budgets, and how to oust them. So the reckless yahoo who does cut LPT by 100% is the same yahoo who then has to explain why this library and that park and that vocational college are closing.
At the heart of the property tax conundrum is the fact that no one gains from actually explaining why we have to have the damn thing in the first place. We end up with the grotesque scenario of populists of the left competing with each other to cut taxes, then feigning indignation when there is no revenue available to fund services they now demand.
The solution is something I saw once in an episode of the 1970s spy action series “The Professionals”, where the show’s stars, unable to disarm a bomb, instead handcuff the uncooperative bombmaker to his own bomb. Suddenly, with literal skin in the game, he becomes very invested in disarming it.
That’s what we need now, to strap the politicians to their own folly. Give one directly elected mayor in each county control over the LPT and county budget, and the ability to be fired directly by the county’s voters. Put their name, face, party and signature on every LPT bill that goes through every letter box. Suddenly he or she will become very concerned with defending budgetary decisions in the county, and making sure the voters appreciate exactly why LPT is at the level it is at and how it is spent. They’ll have to, because they’ll be able to hear the ticking getting louder and louder as polling day approaches and they can’t point the finger at anyone else.

 
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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.

 
1

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. 

 
0

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.

 
2

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.

Copyright © 2019 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.