Will Sinn Fein actually be quite economically conservative in government?

It’s not impossible that the next general election, in 2024 or 2025, will be up there with 1918 or 1932 as a gamechanger election in Irish history, our version of 1945 or 1979 in the UK. It’s not impossible that for the first time in our 100 year history as a state we could end up with a Taoiseach not from FF or FG, and a governing party that up until the early 1980s denied the very legitimacy of the state itself.

It is fair to say that the election outcome will be described as a change election, proof that Nothing Ever Changes In Irish Politics ™ is simply not true. Will we see a government of radical change elected?

It depends on what we, the Irish, call change. The 1932 de Valera government did radically change the country, bringing in an entirely new constitution. The 1948 FG government took us out of the Commonwealth and symbolically declared a republic. Both parties and their various coalition partners slowly built up a modern welfare state.

What will a Sinn Fein government do that will be a radical change from its predecessors? If you read SF activists online, the declarations of radicalism peter out in the detail: yes, they talk about housing and healthcare and senior care and childcare and mental healthcare but the language is just about more of what FF/FG are already giving.

Ask them how an “Irish NHS” will differ from the HSE for those already with medical cards, and they blank. Promising to spend more money without a detailed guarantee of specific delivered objectives is not only not radical, it is the same policy that EVERY SINGLE Irish government has followed.

This is not radicalism, and SF’s leadership know it, because they know that the Irish electorate as a whole are not enthused about radical change. Sinn Fein are far more enthusiastic about taking people out of the tax base (Another FF/FG/PD/Labour favourite) than adding tax revenue to the state. Their wealth tax proposal expects to raise shy of €100m a year, which sounds like a lot until you realise our national budget is €88,000,000,000.

In other words, their wealth tax will raise 0.11% of our national budget. There are other proposals on employers PRSI, etc, that will raise more, but Sinn Fein are very cautious not to increase tax on most workers.

Why not? Because, one would assume, that they share the same reason FF/FG don’t make a loud public argument as to why we ALL should pay higher taxes for the common good. Because they don’t believe that the Irish voters will believe that higher taxes automatically mean better services. Why would they? They haven’t in the past. SF are no more radical on cutting bad public spending that FF/FG.

Economically, SF in government look like being very similar to FF in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Some tax tinkering, loudly throwing money with little regard to actual impact, and primarily borrowing until that moment when the bond markets simply refuse to provide more.

Even at that point will SF be different? Maybe some of the left in SF will start roaring and shouting about “who elects the bond markets” but it doesn’t matter: if you want more of their money you have to do what they say. At this point they could then do an Argentina and simply default, which admittedly would be incredibly radical.

But I don’t buy it. Far more likely we end up seeing minister for finance Pearse Doherty on US business news talking solemnly about how no previous Irish (FF/FG) government ever squelched on its debts to the global lenders, and he’s not going to start now. One can almost picturing the howling anguish of the Sinn Fein left with denunciations of the betrayal of Pearse, Connolly and the assorted Men/Women/Other of 1916.

That’s all well and good, but Doherty will have to make sure grannies get their pensions.

32: a fictional history of the reunification of Ireland.

I don’t claim this to be a comprehensive or academic study. It’s purely a work of fiction designed by me to stir the debate about the details of a future agreed Ireland. I believe in a united Ireland: but my biggest fear is that we end up with a West Brexit scenario, voting through a concept without knowing what we have in reality actually voted for in detail. Details matter, and this fictional account does not claim to cover all the angles nor offer all the solutions, but merely to stir the constitutional creative juices of those of use who believe in this project.

Attitudes to litter tell you a lot about our national psyche.

As with so many things in Irish politics, certain events trigger an almost identical response every time.

Take some public event which leaves a load of litter lying about. The response from different quarters is always the same, and highlights the competing psyches in the country.

First up are the Civic Spacers, the people who take offense at public spaces being violated by people dumping their property (Yes, when you buy a Big Mac you own the box too) and what it says about us as a country. I’m unashamedly one of them.

Then there’s the Not My Faulters. They accept that litter is undesirable but that disposing of THEIR unwanted property is not their responsibility, but that of “the government” or the business that sold them the product and its container, as if coffee should be poured into your hands. Their valid point, often about either a lack of bins or bins overflowing due to bad government is swept away by their refusal to take responsibility for their own actions.

“Wait, I have to carry this Magnum wrapper around in my pocket until I find a bin??? Why. Is. My. Life. So. Hard???”

Next up: the Have We Not Got Bigger Problems crowd. These lads are an off-shoot of the Sell The Government Jet To Solve All Our Problems gang, who believe government can only focus on one issue at a time (their issue, naturally).

“I can’t believe some people are worried about a little bit of litter whilst Palestine/Direct Provision/Housing/The Great Replacement is going on!”

Finally, there’s the F**k Yous. Not only do they not care, they are not even aware of litter. You can see them come out of McDonalds, pull off a wrapper, walk by a bin and toss the litter. There’s no point trying to shame them with TV ads: the only thing they respect is the physical force of the state stopping them, and that’s the issue. What is the most likely outcome of you littering right in front of a Garda? You know the answer. If you brass it out, probably nothing.

That particular statement should be our national motto.

Labour: a proper republican party?

Alan Kelly: defending the republic?

Let’s be very clear: we are not talking about IF Sinn Fein enter government, but WHEN.

In that context, the decision facing many real republicans in that election will be which party can be trusted to ensure that the republican and democratic values that this country is founded on be defended in a Sinn Fein dominated cabinet?

I believe there is a serious opportunity for Labour here. As a party it is not without criticism, and I have never been short of ammunition to criticise Labour, but I’ll tell you one thing. Within my lifetime memory, from Dick Spring on, Labour’s patriotic credentials have never been in doubt. Nor its commitment to true republican values and a United Ireland where all religions and creeds can claim a home. It has been the party that delivered social liberalism when it wasn’t the mainstream value. It can trace a line right back to 1916 (unlike some) but it has, since independence, always stood firm to the idea that the national question will not be resolved by violence. In the 1970s and 1980s Labour was not found wanting in standing up to the Provos.

So ask yourself this: in your gut, can you trust Alan Kelly to be a minister for justice and defence in a Sinn fein led government, making sure that reforms of the Guards or the judiciary or the Special Criminal Court will be for the benefit of the nation as a whole, and not part of a sinister Erdogan style agenda by a single party?

I think it’s time Alan Kelly start thinking about this, because it could Labour’s defining platform in the next election.

Ten Rules of Irish Politics (Updated)

  1. With certain exceptions (in particular Sinn Fein), the personal vote of a candidate is more important to election victory than their party vote.
  2. Voters decide what matters in elections, not candidates or party activists.
  3. There are always far more votes to be won opposing a specific proposal to build new housing in an area than supporting it.
  4. Being an Irish legislator is like being a brain surgeon who is employed to carry out brain surgery but whose employment review is decided on how well he maintains a garden on the other side of the country.
  5. You cannot be lazy and be a successful Irish politician. You can be corrupt, deceitful or stupid but you cannot be lazy.
  6. Irish voters are perfectly happy holding two or more completely contradictory beliefs.
  7. There are no votes in proposing long-term solutions.
  8. There is a large number of people involved in Irish politics who have almost no interest in the shaping or direction of Irish society.
  9. It is possible to have a successful career in Irish politics and never ever have to make an unpopular decision.
  10. Being an Irish citizen gives you more rights than the citizens of any other nation on Earth.

Why are Irish Govts so bad at educating voters?

It’s not true to say that nothing every changes in Irish politics. Those of us who grew up in Ireland in the 1980s are living in essentially a better country with more personal freedom and a greater standard of living.

But there are, nevertheless, some things that seem to go on forever.

Attitudes to taxes and public spending have not changed much. Every single party in the Dail has, as a core value, a hardwired belief among its candidates to go to voters in their parishes and tell them that they will get them better public services or facilities but that someone in another parish will pay for them. There is simply no major link between the taxes we pay and the services we get as a value to be communicated. Indeed, the two functions are so separated that pumping more money into public services (especially the HSE) has become almost a sort of religious mantra, not dissimilar to throwing a virgin into a volcano to assuage the volcano god.

In fairness, Ireland is not unique in this. Politicians promise. That’s what they do. “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the man behind the tree” was a famous political slogan from the 1930s in America, so it is not new. But what is more specific to Ireland is how Irish pols know that it isn’t sustainable. Taxes and borrowing are continuing to rise, and on top of that a new political concept seems to be sweeping the land where more and more voters seem to believe that not only should they get more services at no cost from the state, but they should not be part of the tax base either.

It’s hardly surprising that politicians are afraid to oppose that view. Certainly not opposition ones. But it is remarkable how government ministers and TDs are willing to take responsibility for squaring the impossible circle and with that the unpopularity for not delivering the impossible.

This govt, and govts before it, operates one of the most progressive tax systems in the world. We tax the rich, and to be sure, the not-so-rich and even the I’d-like-to-be-rich-one-day. We pay one of the most generous pensions in the world, including to people who did not contribute much. We pay one of the most generous dole payments in the world. We pay our doctors and nurses better salaries than most countries, all delivered by governments run by FF/FG/Labour/Greens/Democratic Left and the Progressive Democrats.

This government will spend, on health and social welfare alone, more in its five year term than the combined total wealth of Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe.

Yet you wouldn’t know much of this because our collective media and society focusses on stories of individual failure, of which there are many. We hear about the people on trollies on a daily basis (Pre-Covid) but very rarely hear how many people the HSE treats daily?

I blame successive governments for this, for not regarding the education of the voters in a democracy as a vital necessity, as opposed to something we just hope happens.

We’re setting up an Electoral Commission soon. It should be given a mandate and a budget to communicate fact.

I’m not talking propaganda, telling us all what a great job the govt is doing. I’m talking a rolling campaign of fact: who pays tax, and who doesn’t, rich and poor. How many homeless we have, and how homelessness is actually defined. How much we collect in tax, and what we spend it on. How it is spent. How much is spent on wages and pensions.

All fact. Of course, all this assumes that ministers and govt TDs have a) the imagination to do this, and b) can see it is in their interest to do so. A well-informed electorate who sees the connection between tax and spending is a good thing.

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TV Review: Motherland: Fort Salem

“Motherland: Fort Salem” (S1 Disney+/Star Ireland) is not a show I’d normally be interested in. The phrase “Supernatural teens” is, along with “ancient prophecy”, normally guaranteed to have me clicking on. So I approached the pilot episode with some trepidation.

I was wrong. I went through the entire 10 episodes of the first season over a few days, and am fuming that season two is not available, because I really enjoyed it.

M:FS is set in an alternative USA where the Salem witch trials ended in the Salem Accord where the leader of the witches, Sara Alder, agreed that in return for ending persecution against witches, witches would agree to defend the colonies and eventually the United States. 300 years later Alder (the same one. That’s explained later) is still leading the US Army as she has through a changed history and is now leading the fight against the Spree, a group of terrorist witches who….

I’ll better stop here, because it does sound ridiculous. But what really won me over was the level of detail in the witching world. The fact that it’s not all incantations (indeed, some rural witches get mocked by modern witches for using “spells” and the military training the witches go through is all focussed on the use of specific sounds, songs and tones. It’s also a female dominated world: the president is a black woman and all the senior military and frontline soldiers are women. There is an international council of witches based in (where else) The Hague which bans certain practices like mind control.

Although it is focused on the three young witches training in Fort Salem, there’s a very interesting undertone about whether the Spree are right. The non-magical majority accept the witches as the army, and many are grateful, but there is prejudice still on both sides. Many of the original great witching families see themselves as a superior caste.

The breakout character for me is Belgian actress Lyne Renee who plays General Alder. On the one hand, she is the witch that brought peace between humans and witches. On the other hand, she fears a return to the old times and sees the Spree stirring up old hatreds against the witches through some genuinely horrifying terrorist attacks using magic (which I won’t spoil). Her moral ambiguity is all the more powerful given, as she reminds other witches, the burning of witches is not ancient history to her. There’s a hint of the Golda Meir to her.

General Alder leads American forces across the Delaware…

Watching it, I’m reminded of the UK TV series “Ultraviolet”, which dealt with vampires not as supernatural but as a scientifically explainable phenomenon.

Having said that, the witches do nickname military helicopters “bats”. Give “Motherland: Fort Salem” a go.

Why the (imperfect) Directly- Elected Mayor of Limerick should be welcomed.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

Picture the scene: Michael Collins sitting across from that wily old Welsh fox British prime minister David Lloyd George, faced with two choices. 

One, the acceptance of Saorstát Éireann and a partitioned dominion status still under (nominally) the British crown, or two, a continued war which Collins, the architect of our war against the British, believed was ultimately doomed through lack of resources. 

Now, imagine if Collins, who had fought for a single republic covering the whole island, had instead proffered a third option: that Ireland stay in the United Kingdom until the perfect all-Ireland republic model was offered.

Decades later we’d be still going to summer schools and debating what sort of republic would be the best, all under a union jack fluttering in the breeze, opposed to any change until we get the exact model that delivers absolutely everything we aspire to.

Welcome to Irish politics 2021.

Listening to the arguments against the proposed Directly-Elected Mayor (DEM) for Limerick is close to making me explode, for the simple reason that it is a debate so covered in falsehood.

Don’t get me wrong: there are good arguments against having elected mayors. 

I don’t agree with them, but I accept their validity. 

But that’s not what we are getting here.

Instead, we get arguments that go from the moronic to the downright dishonest.

Firstly, the argument that we shouldn’t have an elected mayor because we will have to pay them is a valid one provided you’re willing to say that you’re happy with Dublin making the decisions, through the county manager (I hate the term chief executive). But you know what: the people who are happy to knock the idea are very often the first to complain that their county is ignored by Dublin. They can’t have it both ways.     

Then there’s the argument that we will elect gobshites, which is quite possible, but is an argument against Irish democracy, not elected mayors. 

Opposing DEMs as just a pure two-fingers-to-politics isn’t much of an argument either, just a very very conservative act against change dressed up as anti-establishmentism. 

The real opposition, though, is the most duplicitous.

That’s the people who claim to be very enthusiastic about DEMs, but feel that the issue needs to be debated endlessly until the perfect model is arrived at. 

The stay-under-British-rule until perfection argument.

It’s a con argument. Mostly by county councillors who actually want to keep the current year long taxpayer-funded responsibility-free ego trip, but don’t want to admit it in public. 

It’s the same argument used to delay Seanad reform. 

Remember that? 

Remember politicians falling over each other with Seanad reform proposals right up to referendum day, and then suddenly vanishing? Same malarkey. They don’t want Seanad reform: they want to keep the argument going on forever to avoid reform. 

It’s the same with debates on DEMs. 

It’s the weirdest coalition you’ll ever see: people who hate politicians because they believe they’re in politics to look after themselves siding with politicians who want to keep the current system for that exact reason, to look after themselves. 

The proposed DEM system isn’t ideal. 

It’s unclear how the mayor and the chief executive will actually work together. What happens if the mayor and the chief executive have a falling-out over, say, a proposal by the chief executive to build an urban whitewater rafting facility?

I have no idea. But I’d sure like to see what happens when there’s someone in the room opposed to it with a few hundred thousand first preferences in her back pocket.

The DEM is a progressive start for two reasons.

One: it identifies a single person in every county who can be held accountable for the actions and policies of the county council.     

Two: it lets ordinary voters fire them, which is a great motivator for politicians.

Something you can’t do with the county chief executive. 

As to the argument that it will be just a ceremonial position, ask yourself this. 

If the mayor job doesn’t matter, why does it currently have a year-long term? Why not just let the mayoralty rotate month by month to every councillor alphabetically? That way they wouldn’t have to take time off work to be mayor (or get paid much), but could just take it during their annual holidays. 

One reason is the publicity, but the other reason is that even if a mayor was elected for five years under our current system, by the councillors themselves, the public would start holding them responsible for the council. 

It would stop being the mostly-showboating job that most councillors pretend it isn’t. 

The current mayoral term is designed for a year’s worth of subsidised publicity but not long enough to be blamed for anything. This would change that, and the fact that so many councillors are campaigning on a “Less power now!” platform is surreal.

Directly Elected Mayors are not a panacea for every problem, but they are a game-changer. From day one the mayor will have decision-making powers comparable to the chief executive, and more importantly a framework to build on, gaining experience and then looking for more power to be devolved locally. 

We didn’t get to be a united republic from 1921. 

The treaty was not the end of our journey, but the stepping stone to us taking our place at the table of European sovereign nations. From Free State to republic to EU member to you-know-what.

The proposal for mayor of Limerick is the same: the first modest step in moving decision-making power from the Custom House to where most people live, and should be seized upon in that spirit. 

The Dublin Bay South By-Election: a few observations.

Firstly, congratulations to Ivana Bacik and Labour. People forget, winning a by-election is a big deal because you have to basically get half the people to either vote for you or not actively against you.

Secondly, a tip of the hat to Virgin Media News Gavan Reilly (@Gavreilly) who created an absolutely superb tool for (access here) the count and after giving us a wealth of information not just on the count but where the votes come from. There’s some interesting stuff here. For example:

The spread of the Bacik vote, from respectable in low-income areas to very impressive in high-income areas shows how Bacik/Labour was seen as the safe vote, especially in the context of a possible challenge from Sinn Fein.

The fact that Fine Gael only did alright in one of the wealthiest constituencies in the country is an eye-opener into the Irish political psyche. On the one hand, wealthy people were very comfortable voting for an avowed socialist. On the other hand, they weren’t particularly nervous about it either. In short, is Labour now our Liberal Democrats?

It’s also worth noting that there were four districts where Sinn Fein got a whooping West Belfast style 59%-68% of the first preference vote. The other parties need to be careful that those areas do not become de facto no-go areas, with murals and reminders to other party canvassers that “this is a Sinn Fein” area. Some activists are saying this has been happening for a while already, and that the other parties just don’t seem to have access to the same paid resources SF has . Of course, Sinn Fein will say that the lack of attention by other parties is what has led to such a strong vote.

Let me also say that if the new Electoral Commission isn’t producing this sort of data at ward level for easily public consumption they’re not doing their job properly.

Finally: Fianna Fail’s poor performance once again confronts that party with a question it doesn’t want to ask itself: what is it actually for? If it didn’t exist it, would its current members create it? What is the unique thing non-FF members attribute to FF?

Book Review: “Selling Hitler” by Robert Harris.

Before he became world famous as the author of “Fatherland” in 1992, Robert Harris was a respected journalist who wrote, in 1986, the definite account of the Hitler Diaries scandal of 1983.

For readers unfamiliar with the scandal, in 1981/82 the German magazine Stern believed it was offered, by a secretive route through East Germany, the personal diaries of one Adolf Hitler that had supposedly been recovered from a plane crash in early 1945.

They were fraudulent, manufactured by a moderately-gifted forger who should have been detected within days of delivering the first volumes.

Instead, Stern, believing they had stumbled onto one of the publishing scoops of the century, proceeded to engage in one of the greatest farces of modern publishing history, where a mixture of fraud, wilful suspension of disbelief and assumption led to a comedic shambles.

The book reads like a thriller (unsurprisingly), and is a wonderful testament to how a mixture of money, hope and the simple belief by everybody that someone else had seriously verified what was on offer. As it happened, the verification was so half-assed that at one stage one expert was unknowingly verifying Hitler’s supposed handwriting in the diaries against a sample he believed to be real but was actually created by the forger himself.

The cast of characters is superb, from ex-Nazis to Rupert Murdoch to David Irving mischievously and masterfully dropping himself right into the middle of the action, to a deluded German journalist absolutely convinced that Martin Bormann was going to suddenly appear to endorse the whole thing!

I recommend the Audible version read by David Rintoul, one of the leading audiobook narrators in the world.