Good Reads…

“Why we get the wrong politicians” by Isabel Hardman is a very readable and honest account of the flaws of the British political system from someone who has had day to day experience of it. It’s particularly interesting when looking at Westminster from an Irish perspective, and about how party organisations in the UK are much more centralized than in Ireland. Lose the support of the central party and even as a sitting MP your career is over. It also dismisses the belief held by Irish politicians that UK pols don’t have to do constituency work: a running theme is that MPs are becoming as inundated with constituency casework as Irish TDs, the difference being that the level of work done has a much less significant effect on one’s personal vote in the UK than in Ireland.

The US through a TV lens.

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

I was watching an episode of “NCIS” recently. You know “NCIS”, right? Actually, chances are you flicked through an episode if you were watching TV because it seems to be perpetually on one of the murder channels, yet have never watched it. 

A regular staple of American pensioners, “NCIS” can be watched as an intriguing insight into how mainstream middle America sees itself.

Every week is a collection of pre-baked tropes: a body is found, with some tenuous connection to the US Navy (NCIS is the Navy’s detective division). The victim used to be a marine or is wearing Old Spice or something.  

Special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his team investigate. 

His younger more tech-savvy team try to explain evidence to him using technical terms that the audience can actually understand but Gibbs snarls at with a demand they “speak English”, on behalf of that section of the aging audience that keep accidentally taking photos of their ear with their “too fancy” smartphone.

Gibbs will berate any bureaucrat who tries to hinder him with nit-picking rules (like the Bill of Rights), and many investigations eventually lead to Gibbs and his team discovering that the simple murder they were investigating actually leads to a major terrorist plot, right up to a plot to murder the President or start a war with Russia, with NCIS the last line of national defence.

By the way, I do love the way during the show they announce themselves as “NCIS” to civilians who don’t go “And what’s that now? Is that some sort of transgender thing?”   

Occasionally, Gibbs and his team will travel abroad, where it is assumed that US law applies, and they have a right to carry out gun battles on foriegn streets and arrest the citizens of foriegn countries. 

The baddies are always punished, normally in a hail of bullets or by Gibbs threatening to send them to Guantanamo (to hell with pesky rules again), and the families of military personnel who die during the show are always looked after, especially if they have children. 

Except for Gibbs’ wife and child who were killed by a Mexican drug dealer whom Gibbs, a former Marine sniper, hunted down and killed, and has thus earned him the right to look off wistfully into the distance and build a boat in his basement. 

You know, working with wood. The sign of a real man. 

“NCIS” is basically the American version of “Midsomer Murders”. 

It rarely shocks, has a clear moral narrative, and is a comic version of how a country sees itself. Its star, Mark Harmon, is a 68 year old silver fox and he’s not even the oldest member of the cast. That’ll be David McCallum at 83. 

You can’t help thinking that all across America in nursing homes there are pensioners delighting at watching Gibbs kicking the tar out of men thirty years his junior without having “one of his falls” or needing his special tablets.  

It is also the number one TV drama on American network TV, and has been for the last ten of its eighteen years on the air, with one aspect of its appeal, I suspect, being its simple moral reassurance. The military, the flag, clear definition of good guys (The US and Israel) and bad guys (Arabs, slippery accented Europeans and the odd Russian), and loads of guns.

I’ve always been intrigued by how a society reflects itself in TV drama, especially that drama which doesn’t try to tell a warts and all story of itself, but instead tries to portray a reassuring picture of how the society would like to see itself. 

“NCIS” is watched by older, whiter and generally more conservative viewers, but even they are seeing in it what they want to see. Sure, it’s a show about the military. 

But it’s also a show about civil servants (albeit with guns) funded by taxes using said taxpayer funds to hunt down criminals, and with nearly every problem solved by the NCIS team using substantial amounts of taxes. 

Not that anyone ever says that in the show. They’re too busy blowing baddies away. 

A different take on America can be seen in the TV series “Homeland”, which had its final episode last week. For those unfamiliar, it was a show about a CIA operative (Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes) and her brilliant curmudgeon boss Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, both giving captivating performances. It started out with the CIA battling Islamist extremists and their agents, before pivoting to the Russian threat in its final seasons. 

As a show it was superb at painting the current battle America is having with itself, as US political, state and media institutions are manipulated by America’s enemies, in one season reducing the first female president to powerlessness. 

Both characters are dedicated unashamedly Deep State public professionals who see their duty to the American republic as more important than their own family relationships or personal success, battling America’s enemies whilst side-stepping venal right wing commentators and weak pandering politicians. 

No show has managed to communicate America’s internal fall from grace better, still The Global Military Superpower and yet domestically an actual battleground for its enemies. 

Whilst both are fictional dramas to be taken with a pinch of salt, “Homeland” takes a much more nuanced view of where the US is. Both characters are ruthless in their defence of America, ordering special forces and drone strikes to kill threats to US security, and yet both regard the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as counter-productive political gimmicks that made the US less safe, not more. 

“Homeland” was less about goodies and baddies and more about morally ambivalent choices, right up to its final episode.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that “Homeland” was only seen by a fraction of the weekly US viewership of “NCIS”.  

A border poll must be only the opening part of the reunification debate.

Previously published by The Irish Independent.

It’s ironic to think that the single biggest outcome of Brexit could be the replacement of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland with Great England (featuring Wales and the Isle of Man.). But it’s not an unreasonable to see a domino track from Brexit to Scottish Independence to a United Ireland. This is a real live proposition and we need to start considering it.

So here’s the bit that will activate a thousand Shinnerbots and the usual Free Stater/West Brit name throwing: a border poll can’t just trigger a Brexit-style united Ireland without knowing the actual details of what a United Ireland will look like. 

Yes, I know, this is the bit where people jump up with well-worn copies of the Good Friday Agreement and a loud “Well, actually…” I get it. A border poll in the north (and only the north, something many in the republic don’t get) transfers sovereignty in principle.

Supposing Boris decides to honour it almost immediately, regardless of the size of the winning margin or any details, just ups and out in weeks, telling the Irish government that the salaries and pensions and health funding and all the rest are our problem from midnight of day X.

Don’t be ridiculous, you say! There are agreements and understandings between Britain and Ireland and words given and Boris…..Johnson…..isn’t……..that….

See the problem.

Don’t forget, we can’t force the British to not give us the north of Ireland and all its public spending and pension liabilities and victim compensation responsibilities. It’ll be the first thing we’re asked by the former unionists and not an inconsiderable number of nationalists too. 

Will we meet all Britain’s spending liabilities?

But Britain has obligations, many Shinnerbots will cry, suddenly realising that it is they trying to convince me that I need to trust the British Tories to keep their word.  

Guess what: I don’t.

The Taoiseach will of course go on television that night and announce that the people of the north of Ireland do not need to worry. The Irish state will honour their NHS funding and pensions and all the rest.

Then the DUP will point out all the social welfare payments in the south that are higher than in the north, and demand parity of esteem. 

It’ll be at this stage that the minister for finance will be sending for a new pair of trousers. 

The Americans! The EU! The United Nations! Bill Gates! The National Lottery! The 2:30 at Chepstow! All will be declared to be the source of funding the ten to fifteen billion in extra spending we suddenly have to find. And all, suffering the same Covid ravaging of their national finances that we went through will say the same thing: sorry Paddy. You wanted it, you pay for it.

The minister for finance will know the reality. Yes, we probably can borrow for a while, the legacy of not going all Maduro On The Shannon back in the day. But it’s not sustainable. Either taxes go up, or spending is cut, but neither necessarily on either side of the former border. 

The minister, in front of a wall of tricolours announces that we, the Irish people, have always known that sacrifices would have to be made in the cause of unity, and so it has come to pass.     

By the way, speaking as a republican, I don’t regard Free State as an insult. I just like reminding people what it stands for: the section of the Irish people who actually defeated the British in our bit.   

What do TV ads say about us in the time of Covid?

Previously published by The Irish Independent.

Carrot Cannibals.

Has anyone noticed that Aldi’s Christmas ad? It seems to be about Santy delivering a carrot back to his family so they can all be boiled and devoured together in some sort of Tarantinoesque familial masochistic reverse cannibalism? That Kevin the carrot is giddy with excitement at the prospect of being eaten, along with his mum and dad Katie and Jasper, sister Chantenay and the youngest Baby Carrot? 

Maybe I’m overthinking it too much. You bloody well are, screams Aldi’s marketing department. 

Perhaps. I am watching a lot of TV ads. I like TV ads. In fact, as regular readers know, when I’m not shaking an impotent fist at our political system I’m a bit of an amateur TV history junkie, and I find TV ads can be a fascinating insight into a period in time, in that they’re not as rtepeated as TV shows are and so tend to be much more of their time. 

I grew up in an era where it was perfectly normal for a squarejaw in a black poloneck to swim through shark infested waters with a briefcase(A briefcase!) to deliver a box of chocolates, and don’t get me started on the simmering filthfest of coy “wait ‘til mother goes to bed and I’ll show you buttered spuds” looks that was the KerryGold ads. 

Funnily enough, in the time we are living in (“These challenging times” is, I believe, the official description) watching ordinary TV with its ads and the rest brings a strange sort of sociability and connection. 

You can’t go to the pub, or restaurants, or your local car-keys-in-a-bowl party if you live in Enniskerry, but you can feel part of something just that little bit bigger watching terrestrial telly as opposed to binge watching “Suits”. 

By the way, if you haven’t watched “Suits” it’s about a group of beautifully dressed beautiful lawyer people who are constantly too busy to talk because they’re going to a meeting or being unhappy in their beautiful apartments pondering how hard it is to be beautiful all the time. “Suits”? Should be called “Ungrateful Feckers”, but I digress.

We’re getting very accustomed to the Covid take on ads: the lonely piano playing as we are shown someone’s granny looking sadly through a window at her grandchildren. People learning new skills on lockdown, like how to speak Serbo-Croat or dismantle a tactical nuclear weapon. A lot of exercise. And that “we’re all in this together” thing. 

We don’t see much of the granny delighted the little feckers aren’t wrecking her house. Or the couple in their pyjamas hoovering through a box of Celebrations. Or the odd murder. Wait and see: when this is all over we’ll be digging people out from under the rosebushes: You can’t be showing locked down people “Midsomer Murders” on a perpetual loop without consequences. 

But that’s all OK. The Covid ads show us a glimpse of where we are and also our technical abilities, with so many ads now filmed by people in their own homes, showing customers of X or Y talking Christlike about the company if only because they’ve nothing better to do. 

Some ads do get me roaring at the screen, I’ll admit. 

Those ads for men’s and women’s fragrances, which have gotten so po-faced.

Take that one where Thor strolls very handsomely through some city announcing that “Success without integrity means nothing”. What does that even mean? 

If he’d said something like “Slamming your lad in a car door will make your eyes water” I’d at least nod at the accuracy of the statement. The women’s ads are even worse, the montage ones showing her laughing with friends, storming away from a man, driving a car erratically, having a good cry, giving some other fella a good seeing to. You can’t move for sharp cheekbones, and that’s just the men..

Then some vacuous saying, and the bit that makes me explode: where they announce the name of the product in a deadpan matter-of-fact but-of-course voice.  It’s the fake profoundity of it that kills me, that buying a bottle of “Tumescence. Chanel” is some sort of statement about who you are. 

But that’s not where I reserve my leap from the couch in finger-pointing denunciation moment: that’ll be for the bank ads. 

Please. Spare me the “Brave” or the “we’re just like you” from the banks. 

You know we’re not. We know we’re not. 

Just for once I’d love to see a bank ad that tells an unvarnished truth that is at least authentic.

“We at Consolidated Bailout Bank really like making profits, which we try to make by lending to you for a cost higher than the amount of interest we pay to people to let us mind their money. We like making profits, but we get that if we make too much, you might go to some other bank, so we promise we’ll charge you as much as we can but not enough to make you  go over to those other guys at Unified Golden Parachute Bank. And we won’t try that usual Rubik’s Cube account charges thing where we try to bamboozle you by varying the charges using variables like whether Gemini is in line with Jupiter, Sine and Cosine from your Leaving Cert log tables,  or dividing the fee by the span of an African elephant ear if it’s Tuesday or Thursday. 

Consolidated Bailout Bank: Moneylending, but without ending up in the Sunday World.”

The ad I’m really waiting for is one full of really tired non-cheekboney people with grey hair giving a thumbs up to the camera, then the slogan. 

Vaccine. By Pfizer.

A serious country defends itself seriously.

French Air Force Rafale

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

There’s an ad from the Norwegian Armed Forces currently doing the rounds on social media. It’s a very slick affair, all fighters, submarines, tanks, and good looking Nordic soldiers of both genders looking like they’d give you a good hiding if you as much as looked at their orderly well-run social democratic paradise. 

But what’s really striking about the ad is the message (in English) it conveys. 

That Norway is buying 52 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. 

In case you don’t know, the F-35 is probably the most advanced jet fighter in the world, with a price tag of between $90 and $120 million each depending on what bells and whistles you get with them. 

The more expensive ones can take off vertically like a Harrier jump jet. 

Any country that plans to attack you by air knows it will come up against a plane that will almost certainly shoot you down unless you too are flying one. 

They’re not just buying planes. They’re buying submarines, too. 

And standing foursquare behind their membership of NATO.

That’s not the bit that struck me the most though: what really makes you sit up is that the narrator asks a question every Irish viewer asks watching it. 

Why are they doing this? 

Why are they spending money on this? 

Why are they sending their young men and women into the snow and the forests to drill and practice over and over?

What, the ad asks, do we expect to happen having done all this?

The answer is: nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Norway hopes that any aggressor (cue side-eye to the man in the Kremlin) will see that Norway takes its defence seriously. 

That there is a price to threatening Norway. 

That the price of a Russian boot on Norway is a bloody nose and more. 

From an Irish perspective it’s bizarre. 

We simply don’t comprehend the idea that war is something that happens without your consent. 

To us, war is a choice. If you don’t like it, it won’t happen to you. 

The Norwegians have known what it is like to have foriegn troops in your capital executing your own fellow citizens, and have chosen to learn a lesson from it.

Curiously, we too have experienced an occupying force on our streets, and yet have chosen to learn a different lesson. The party that bangs on the most about Irish sovereignty is also the party most opposed to spending any money defending it. 

On one hand, we are right. Norway shares a border with Russia, and has offshore assets that need defending. 

The chances of us being physically invaded by anyone is very slim indeed. 

If Russian troops are coming down O’Connell Street it means they’re probably coming down the Champs Elysee as well and we’re all banjaxed anyway.

But we do have national security issues. We are, as a modern industrialised nation, as vulnerable to cyber attack as any other western nation. We are, thanks to foriegn direct investment, a target-rich environment for terrorists and especially those with access to technology. 

Do we believe we’re as capable of cyber defence as comparable nations? 

Anyone  think we could safely shoot down a suspicious drone over Croke Park?

Or deal with an extortion attempt involving bringing down our air traffic control system?

We don’t even have a dedicated domestic intelligence service, and all these capabilities involve spending money and having someone to sell you the equipment and train you how to use it (PESCO), both of which we have political problems with.

Our response to issues of national security, if we ever consider them, is to regard them as fluffy “thoughts and prayers” issues, with reference to the United Nations and the need for empathy and understanding of all sides, a form of “Nazis have feelings too, you know.”

Most parties don’t even have national security policies, wrapping the subject up in a foriegn policy based on wringing our hands at other countries to do stuff with their resources. 

When the defence forces are mentioned it is inevitably in the context of pay and working conditions for the military (a not unimportant issue, by the way) and the local impact of barracks closures. 

We hardly ever talk about what a military is for. 

Indeed, there are many in Ireland who would in fact be horrified on learning that this year alone we’ll spend around €869 million on defence, regarding it as “toys for the boys” in a way we never regard much greater expenditure on MRI machines or social housing. 

As if giving our soldiers the best equipment we can is some sort of male ego stroking. 

We spend that amount with a population of around 4.6 million. 

Norway, with a population of 5.3 million, will spend around €6 billion, and that’s an increase on previous years. 

We obsess with the idea of our young people being conscripted to fight in some foriegn colonial adventure, whereas there are only two issues that will really confront us. 

Do we have the capability to deal with actual threats that may occur here, be they terrorist or otherwise, physical or virtual? 

And what do we do if the rest of Europe actually has to fight an invasion? 

Imagine how our support in the EU will look as British (Yes, Brexit Britain!), French, Polish and Estonian troops die defending Talinn as we do a Pontius Pilate? 

Can we live being the slíbhín nation, that runs for the door when trouble starts? 

Perhaps. It’s the easy way out, and will certainly save Irish lives. 

I suspect our teeth will start to grind, however, as our near neighbours remind the rest of Europe that IRA stands for Irish Ran Away.

Can Ireland sustain an openly conservative party?

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

I was chatting with someone recently, and mentioned that I was going to write a column questioning whether there was room in Ireland for a conservative party. He made a joke about an Irish Tory party, which of course is the key point: is it possible to have a conservative party that isn’t immediately compared to the auld enemy?

If anything, the question demonstrates how much Ireland has changed. Up to the mid 1980s all we really had were conservative parties, with FF very socially conservative (in public but not in Haugheyite practice), FG slightly less conservative (but still with its Alice Glenns. Remember her?), and Labour looking over its shoulder every time it used the phrase “rubber johnnies”. 

Economically, it wasn’t much different, although with an Irish twist: all three parties were pretty comfortable with state involvement in the economy, social spending and high taxation, but God forbid you interfere in any economic way with The Land in a nation of Bull McCabes. 

It wasn’t really until the arrival of the Progressive Democrats in 1985 that free enterprise and low taxation became options worth considering, and even the PDs were very cautious about going too far. Indeed, the PD economic record in terms of tax and spending turned out to be pretty centrist: nothing that would be keeping Joe Biden too much awake. 

The awkward fact is that we’re a great people for setting up things before we decide what they’re actually for. It’s all well and good wanting a conservative party but first you have to decide what Irish conservatism is. After all, the old Fianna Fail tried and tested Whatever You’re Having Yourself/I Knew Your Father Well approach just isn’t working anymore.   

Is it peering through curtains worrying about The Gays? Is it repealing the eight amendment? Is it bringing back the ban on abortion and restricting contraception again?

Probably not. One thing about Irish conservatism is that it has nearly always accepted change when it happens, and starts instead worrying about the next thing coming over the hill.

The solution is probably, as American republicans did, to build a coalition around issues that you either feel very passionate about, or don’t care about. The US Republicans built an alliance of free enterprise tax cutters, gun rights activists and cultural conservatives, all willing to turn a blind eye if they didn’t like what the others were looking for in order to achieve their own objectives, and it has been electorally very successful. 

Could Irish conservatives do that? What issues would unite them?

That’s the tricky bit: putting, say, Keith Redmond and Eamon O’Cuiv into the same party would certainly be interesting. Both are pro-life to differing degrees, although you’d wonder what’s to be done on that issue. Both are also euro-critical, and could probably ally on a Thus Far And No Further approach to European integration. But on tax and public spending, Redmond would be closer to American conservatives whereas O’Cuiv would be closer to continental Christian Democrats who are quite comfortable with high public spending. 

Overall, the problem is that Irish conservatives are not particularly comfortable debating openly what it is they want. Even on issues like transgender rights or immigration many conservatives are reluctant to openly debate not only for fear of labelling but because both those issues attract a very nasty (and often Nazi) element that many Irish conservatives want nothing to do with. 

But it remains the core issue: you can’t create a conservative party if you can’t agree what the distinctive aims of that movement are. 

One you decide what you want to achieve, next is the how. The obvious answer is that rotting twisted hulk that once enforced the will of a thousand judgemental clergy, Fianna Fail. There are many on the right who argue, possibly with some truth, that Fianna Fail, in chasing the votes of social liberals pursued those who who never vote for them at the cost of insulting and abandoning those who actually did. 

There may be some truth to that, but it should be remembered that there was no shortage of Fianna Fail TDs happy to come out and oppose repealing the eight amendment, and you’d have to wonder if that helped the party much. You could argue that it helped many of them keep their seats in the following election. But you’d have to be sceptical: look at Renua, where three deputies resigned from Fine Gael over the abortion issue. Despite the 66% yes for repeal in the 2018 referendum the No vote in nearly every single constuituency, including their previous constituencies, should have easily elected a pro-life TD, especially one who made a principled stand on the abortion issue itself.  Yet where were those voters when they were needed at the previous election?  

That’s the question: is there enough of an electorate willing to put their first preference vote beside a party based on its ideology? There are some, who vote Green or Sinn Fein based purely on the party values rather than candidate, but are there enough of those voters to back an openly conservative party? 

Could Fianna Fail be seized by Irish conservatives as their vehicle? It certainly makes sense, and it has happened to parties elsewhere. The US Republicans were once the party of black Americans. The Tories were once the party of Europe. European socialist parties were once the parties of the poor.  

But there’ll almost certainly be a fight, with many in Fianna Fail being very comfortable sitting with other centrist and liberal parties in the European Parliament.

It’ll be bloody and distracting for FF. But for the country, an open punchup in the party would be both healthy for the country and the party itself  and, let’s face it, fairly entertaining too.      

Property Tax reveals the con at the heart of Irish politics.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

I was watching that fine Wizard of Oz performance last week that is Dublin City Council debating its Local Property Tax rate, and as ever, it never fails to both illuminate and entertain. You’ve got to love the the showmanship, as parties of the self-declared left fall over themselves to avoid doing that central kernel of the left, transferring wealth openly from the Haves to the Would Like To Haves.

I get Fianna Fail and Fine Gael opposing tax rises. That’s what they’re for. 

But Sinn Fein and the Alphabet Left are taking the mickey. Credit to Labour and the Greens who put their money where their proverbial mouths are, although it should be remembered that Labour refused to push through radical local government reform in government (actually blocking it) and the Greens in government have agreed to a possible endless delaying of meaningful local government reform.

We can’t really be surprised. Sinn Fein operates, both north and south, on the argument that someone else will always pay for things. In the north it’s the Brits: in the south it’s more subtle. They tell every county that every other county should pay for their stuff, but not this county. In the county next door, Sinn Fein are telling those good people the exact same except pointing at the other county. Same in the one beside it. 

The wizard behind the curtain will pay for everything. 

The Alphabet Left aren’t even that subtle. They just claim that everything will be paid by evil wax moustachioed silk-lined cloak-wearing wealthsters (I’m thinking The Hooded Claw from The Perils of Penelope Pitstop) once they can be caught and pried away from deflowering the virginal young Rosa Luxembourgs of the working class, the rotters. 

Then, two months from now, the council will meet to draw up the 2021 budget and how they voted not to increase council revenues will be dismissed as they launch into a Shakespearen defence of every increase in public spending ever yearned for by even the most casual of passing advocates. The finger will point at FF, FG and the Greens as the keepers of the national couch and what yokes they are not to reach down the back and pull out a few quid for the hungry children.     

Every bloody year we go through this nonsense, and you have to ask yourself why. The answer is very simple: most of our councillors (and variations of this time wasting happens in most councils) are not that interested in changing this. 

Some are the real deal, but they’re at best a modest minority. Most councillors see the council as a pre-Dail vote winning proving ground with a chance of getting a year wearing a chain like the pampered poodle of some divorced Manhattan socialite and with similar levels of responsibility and cholesterol. 

It’s political theatre: we have councils that don’t have identifiable political leadership and so are never held to account. Nobody knows who to blame because nobody elected is in charge, and more importantly, nobody wants to be. A political shell game. 

Looking at this system, you realise that the British missed a trick in Ireland. If they’d brought in home rule but kept the executive power in the hands of the appointed Chief Secretary, we’d probably still be in the UK today, with Irish politicians puffing out their chests and denouncing the administration and never having to be on the unpopular side of an argument by making decisions. 

This is pretty much how we run all our counties. 

It’s the weirdness at the heart of Irish politics: so many people who seek elected office in Ireland merely want to win elections and hold office with curious little desire to shape the future of the place they represent. 

Sure, they’ll read this and get indignant and say different, but most councillors are members of parties that have actually governed or are governing the country in the last ten years, so if they’d wanted to reform the system, they could have. 

Did they? No. If anything, they blocked change. We’ve the only political class that effectively campaigns on the slogan “What do we want? Less power!” “When do we want it? Now’s fine, if it’s no trouble?”

The current FF/FG/Green programme for government promises an citizen assembly on an elected mayor for Dublin for next year. Remember the assembly on the Local Property Tax? Or Water Charges? No. Apparently we didn’t need them. This is a delaying tactic, to push back the decision on elected mayors. Wait and see: the assembly will probably be delayed, then eventually produce a report too late to implement for the next local elections in 2024, so that’s the elected mayor pushed back again, possibly to 2029. You know when we first put an elected 

mayor in Irish legislation (and took it out again at the request of councillors)? 1999. Does this sound to you like an issue our political leaders are pursuing with urgency?

I voted to abolish the Seanad in the October 2013 referendum (Three Taoisigh ago) because I believed meaningful wide-scale reform of the Seanad would be perennially blocked by politicians. I’ve yet to be proven wrong. If you asked me to vote now to abolish the elected councils and just have the local authorities as branches of the Department of the Environment, I’d struggle to find a reason to vote No. Dublin City Council did nothing last week to convince me otherwise.  

Into the crystal ball. Our cities in 2030.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

One of the more counter-intuitive aspects of human progress is that times of great disruption often contribute to increasing innovation and the speed of change. The Second World War started with the French army spending more on hay for horses than fuel for tanks, and ended with the atomic bomb and the beginning of the space race. Covid-19 has the potential to be a similar catalyst for change, in particular speeding up changes that have already begun. We are, for example, now a society in which wearing facemasks is considered perfectly normal.

What could Ireland look like a decade from now? 

Let’s take a step through a rip in the time-space continuum and take a peek at a possible Ireland 2030.  

Welcome to the future. 

The single biggest change in the post-Covid era has been the re-balancing of the urban-rural divide. Working from home, combined with the expansion of business-grade broadband, the flight of the white-collar middle class accelerated as they realised that it was now possible to have a higher standard of living outside the traffic-choked cities. The road network, improved by governments in the past, has continued to expand and has reduced travel time so that rural living no longer means, in urban eyes, isolation. 

Young well-educated (and paid) families began to grasp the quality of life available outside of the major cities without sacrificing living standards. 

After all, Amazon delivers to Rhode just as easily as Rialto.

The cities themselves, especially city centres, find the pace of de-retailification caused initially by internet shopping has accelerated in unexpected ways. Non-food retail declines sharply, but this also allows for some of the more foresighted chief executives of local authorities to just ignore the elected grandstanding buffoons that make up most of their councils and instead seize an opportunity. They buy up cheap former shopping centres for a mixture of conversion to affordable housing and council-rented micro-business premises for small or artisan startups. The availability of affordable urban housing makes those owner-occupied businesses more viable, and soon city centres are filled with thousands of tiny splashes of colour and independent free enterprise. The skies above have drones delivering food and other products from those businesses and other “dark kitchens” in repurposed commercial areas to suburban residential areas and beyond. 

The Garda finally signs on to technology, with high-visibility drones with infrared cameras and speakers hovering over busy areas and providing air support to ground officers. Areas no longer demand their own Garda stations, but rather their permanent stationary hovering and always watching Garda sentinel. 

If anything, some areas start to complain of too much Garda presence.

Urban regeneration is also accelerated by, as the middle class moves rural, low-income immigrants (The single group most likely to start a new business) establishing communities and with them shops and restaurants reflecting their ethnic background. This in turn attracts young and metropolitan employees and those high-tech businesses eager to employ them spend nearly as much ensuring their employees have affordable housing in these thriving and vibrant areas as they do on their now much reduced headquarters buildings. 

Indeed, the quality as much as availability of housing becomes a major issue, as those employees, whilst happy to work from home, require larger homes to allow that their residences don’t become battery hen-like factories. 

Many repurposed commercial buildings boast a mix of one bedroom studio apartments and large communal areas and environmentally sustainable roof gardens to permit people to work from their own buildings, again supported by small micro food and drink retailers. 

The devolution of drinking time regulation to local level permits some parts of the cities to develop a separate and distinct all-night nightlife, with some daytime cafes and restaurants handing over their premises to a separate hospitality business that utilises the premises at night, effectively dual-purposing to reduce overhead costs.  

Cars become less welcome in the cities, with cycling on the verge of becoming, alongside public transport, the dominant method of transport.  

Open-air markets on formerly car-filled streets, often with deployable street covering to defend against the unreliable weather, allow those businesses to expand into the street for those customers still with a latent desire to social distance. City and town centres reverse the doughnutting effect of the mid-20th century. 

The final arrival of the much bally-hooed electric driverless car also happens, driven primarily by soaring driver insurance, with many signing up to reliable Manhattan-style “town cars” where needed, reliably being available outside their door when needed yet elsewhere when not, and finally ridding many of one of the most wasteful 20th century uses of personal capital for an asset that spends most of its time sitting quietly parked and depreciating in value. The use of electric vehicles by both public transport and state services results in a curiously quieter city.  

Indeed, the variety of driverless and competitively priced subscription services becomes a growth industry, as the middle classes who have moved to their rural idylls make use of them when needed, transforming the stop-start frustrated commute of old into a period of solace, work, rest or binge watching. The Department of Transport has to issue ads warning the public to ensure that if they are going to engage in adult activity in their driverless cars, they at least should have tinted windows or curtains to avoid distracting other passengers.

Will it all happen? There’s nothing I’ve outlined that’s too fantastic. 

Of course I can’t say for certain. But one thing I can say: if you don’t have plans for the future, the future has plans for you. 

Personal safety matters.

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

It’s very easy to understand the recent calls for hate crime legislation that came from many decent people, rightly outraged at the racist attack on a Chinese woman near Dublin’s Royal Canal. 

But would it have helped her if such a law was already on the statute book? 

Would those who attacked her have paused because they would have feared crossing some legal rubicon? 

It’s all well and good having laws in statute books, but what anyone under physical criminal attack needs is help, primarily from either police capable of delivering a speedy and robust defence, or the attackers fearing that continuing the attack will reduce their chance of escape. 

What comes after, how society deals with the crime through its judicial system, is a different matter. 

But for now, we need to focus on rapid response to the crime-in-progress, and it’s simply not logical to expect the Garda to be everywhere. 

Even if we doubled the number of Guards it would have only a limited impact and almost less in public perception than the cost of doing it. 

But I can’t help thinking technology and some imagination might give a better return.

Perhaps highly visible Garda drones should be commonplace, hovering over high-risk areas and connected to a command centre that can automatically feed images into facial recognition software. They can be used to rush quickly to reported incidents, and whilst they can’t physically intervene they can assist in the apprehension of criminal suspects by ground units. 

Indeed, a group of criminals engaged in, say, a mugging, have an incentive to desist and flee because the drone can only track a few of them at a time.

Would putting more Garda on motorbikes (guided by Drone Central) allow for a more rapid deployment?

Should those convicted be required to register their mobile phones with the Garda, and carrying an unregistered device be made a criminal offence for convicted criminals? A sort of digital ASBO?

I can’t claim to have any expertise in law enforcement of course, and there will almost certainly be problems with the above suggestions, but surely some experimentation might help. 

The NYPD cracking down on illegal street windscreen cleaners resulted in loads of warrant jumpers being accidentally located. Many old-guard cops in New York City sneered when the ComStat crime tracking system was first mooted, but it became an important aid in identifying crime patterns and allowing for the better targeting of resources. It played a significant role in the reduction of crime in New York  in the 1990s. 

One interesting point would be that such use of technology would possibly lead to an increase in reported crime, as citizens who currently may not bother to report crime because they have no faith in it being investigated might then do so. Imagine an app where one could report “low level” crime like graffiti or vandalism or flytipping, knowing that every report adds to a better picture of where crime is or more importantly might occur, and allow for better deployment of resources. 

The suggested use of much greater surveillance, through recognition software, data collection and eyes-in-the-sky certainly warrants a debate about what sort of society do we want? 

Do we want to live in a country like that?

What if the choice is between the nominal freedom of less surveillance, where some gang of gurriers can kick your teeth in with both your and their privacy being respected, or a Garda drone either frightening them into stopping or guiding Gardai to your location?

What would you prefer? It probably depends on whether your mouth is filled with the slight metallic taste of your own blood. 

To paraphrase one of fiction’s most hardline lawmen, who do you want to see arriving when you’re being mugged? A policeman or your attacker’s human rights advocate?

Of course we must have human rights. 

We have to be very careful about not accidentally stumbling into a police state. 

I’m also very much a sceptic about throwing anyone in prison and throwing away the key. 

It’s incredibly expensive and for the most part it doesn’t work. 

Nor am I certain what the alternative is.

But I do know one thing for certain. 

My personal safety, my liberty and right to walk this country without fear of assault is at least as equal as the rights of the people who might assault me, and if the defence of those rights involves living in a society with a greater level of public surveillance, I can live with that.

I get that putting young people into a brutal prison system is almost guaranteed to make them criminals. 

We should not see prison as primarily some sort of old testament form of revenge. We should also recognise that the likes of Norway has had great success in reducing juvenile crime by taking a more liberal and enlightened approach to incarceration. 

I’m willing to look at all that and yes, if necessary, fund it with my taxes.

But what I’m not willing to tolerate is that I have to sacrifice my physical safety to reach that point. 

Yes, prison should be about rehabilitation, but primarily it should be about keeping violent people physically away from the rest of us, and yes, that should be its primary function. 

As part of that debate, there’s much talk in recent times about the phrase Defund the Police. 

As slogans go, it’s hard to imagine one which is so damaging to the cause it purports to advance. In fairness, for many of its advocates, Defund the Police isn’t about abandoning our law enforcement-free streets to thugs, but proactively spending on things that might prevent crime in the first place.

It’s a perfectly noble aim. 

I just prefer the slogan in its original form: Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.   

A statue for all people.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

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

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

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