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

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Would you die for Estonia?

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

estonian-troopsPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition. 

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

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

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

Is it our business?

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

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

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

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

What would be the response of Ireland as a nation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should our soldiers be allowed be allowed refuse to go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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We need to take the lead on tax harmonisation.

Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us. The island between Boston and Berlin.

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

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

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

 
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British politics needs a bit of Irish in it.

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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The future of Europe may well be decided next May

Posted by Jason O on Sep 5, 2018 in European Union, The Times Ireland Edition

political-map-of-europe-lgPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

I wonder does Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and current European Parliament Mr. Brexit ever look out the window and sigh at how aliens have never once tried to kill him?

Not once has he ever had to battle down corridors cracking aliens over the head with blunt objects like the proposed European Hatware for Badgers with Low Esteem directive, perhaps forming a chalk and cheese fighting partnership with Nigel Farage who, let’s be honest, would side with the EU against face-sucking acid-spitting alien psychopaths.

Well, he probably would. They’re illegal immigrants, after all.

It’s never happened, because you can tell the level of public relevance a political institution is held to by whether Hollywood tries to blow it up by alien invasion.

The White House, United States Congress, Houses of Parliament have all had their fair share of punishment rained down upon them from giant alien battlecruisers.

To the best of my knowledge, no alien invasion fleet has ever tried to destroy the European Parliament.

It’s hard to recall any movie or TV series where the European Parliament was involved. One has to go back to the movie “Paris by night” (1985) to recall Charlotte Rampling playing a British member of the European Parliament, and I do vaguely recall that cad and scoundrel Alan B’stard (played by the late Rik Mayall) was an MEP for a short while in “The New Statesman”.

There was even a thriller written in the 1980s called “The Commissioner” about skullduggery in Brussels and written by one Stanley Johnson, father of you-know-who, but the European Parliament is no “West Wing”.

It’s not even “Borgen”.

Well, buckle up. The European parliament is going to become the most exciting place in Europe within the next ten months.

There won’t be any Martians, but there’ll be no shortage of Nazis.  

Some weeks ago I speculated in this column that the European elections in May could turn out to be a contest of high drama between the forces of European moderate centrism of left and right and the extremists from the aspiring Venezuela left to the various shades of hard right political opinion across Europe.

That was before the news that Steve Bannon, the Sith Lord of Trumpism, has decided to set up shop in our fair continent in an attempt to repeat the Trump victory in a new European format.

If I was slightly worried a few weeks ago about the future of Europe I am now terrified.

The reality is that a victory for the forces of extremism in the European Parliament is very possible, and it matters.

It’s quite possible that European citizens, in the usual bolshy elbows-out attitude towards their sitting national governments may decide to go rogue in the European elections of next year in the mistaken belief that European elections don’t matter. It did used to be fairly ho-hum, occasionally livened up by the soon to be gone presence of UKIP MEPs, who were always a bit of fun accusing each other of things when they weren’t beating the crap out of each other.

But now things get serious. Voters might well believe that the previously sleepy yawn-and-you’ll-not-miss-it legislature is a cost-free no-consequence slap in the face to home politicians, that votes for extremists in the European parliament is some sort of harmless minor protest.

In the past it might have been, but if voters think that now they are very much mistaken.

The parliament is not the toothless rubber-stamping forum of the past.  Successive national governments, stung by criticisms of the EU being undemocratic, kept throwing a few morsels of power down into the dungeon holding the infant parliament, and we’re suddenly surprised when a big beast comes bounding up the stairs years later.

It is a legislature with real power including the power to block the European budget, the power to sack the commission and indeed from the last European elections a very significant if debatable power in terms of deciding who will be the next president of the European commission.

The so-called “spitzenkandidaten” process has a potential to be a nightmare scenario.

Spitzenkandidaten is an informal understanding between the main parties in the European parliament that each party shall nominate a candidate for the presidency of the European commission and that the party who forms the largest single group in the post-election parliament then has the right to nominate to the European council that candidate for the job of succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker.

It’s true that the European treaty which governs the appointment of the president of the commission does not specifically give the power of nomination to the European Parliament.

Instead it says vaguely (on something that you really want to be vague about?) that the European council must “take into account” the results of the European elections.

That could mean anything. That could be the European council perusing a copy of The Times before deciding, but this all comes back down to the composition of the European parliament.

What if the largest block in the parliament is made up of hard-right eurosceptics?

Supposing they nominate say Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders for president?

If they were appointed, that’s the end of the EU.

If the council were to refuse the nominee of the European parliament we get a constitutional crisis with the democratically elected European Parliament on one side and the in-directly elected European council on the other.

Either way is a democratic crisis.

This is why we need to get it clear right now that the president of the commission will be chosen by the member states, not the parliament.

This matters.

The next European elections are going to be a battle between the forces of decency and moderation and those who wish to drive Europe back into darker times.

As part of that we need to abandon the spitzenkandidaten process, which has failed to connect democratically with European voters anyway.

I mean, who can name the last Social Democrat candidate?

I can, but that’s hardly something to brag about.

If anything, I should probably keep that to myself.

It’s also absolutely inconceivable that this European Union or its constituent member states should tolerate the interference or even presence of Steve Bannon within the borders of Europe.

He’s not entitled to be here because he’s not a European Union citizen, if anything more like a de facto enemy combatant, someone who is engaged in a open conspiracy with the far-right to destroy this union.

Steve Bannon should not be allowed into Europe.

If we cannot get consent at European Union level, through the Poles or the Hungarians blocking, then it should be up to individual member states.

Simon Coveney should take the lead and say that Steve Bannon will not be welcome in Ireland and that the minister for justice will have him detained and removed from the jurisdiction of this country if he attempts to enter it.

He should be treated as we would someone advocating radical Islamist terrorism or engaged in espionage and removed accordingly.

We may have held back the forces of darkness when Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, but we are going to have to defeat those forces again and again.

We can at least start by recognising the Hydra when we see it.

Then by promptly cutting off one of its heads.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pro-life campaign.

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

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

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

Jesus, we were all heart, so we were.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By about 100 kilometres to my right.        

 
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FG are Ireland’s conservative party: but not in the way you think.

Posted by Jason O on Feb 18, 2018 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Leo VaradkarPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

It’s pretty standard now for a certain type of social media denizen to declare that Leo Varadkar is “an Irish Tory”. You can almost feel the glow of smug satisfaction come from the Twitter feed as you just know that the poor creature who typed it thinks he’s the first person to come up with that piece of sharp political commentary.

“See what I did there? I called him a tory! But not in England! Here!”

He (and it’s nearly always a he) is the sort of person who tells you on the doorstep during a canvass that “if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it!”, again certain that you’ve never heard that before. Often they genuinely believe they’ve come up with the pronouncement  themselves. You smile politely, and know to move on.  

As it happens, Leo Varadkar would never get past a modern Tory selection convention. He’s just too pro-European and also too pro-foreign aid.

It’s true that they’d love his Indian heritage and his sexual orientation, despite what the left say about them. The British left love striking a pose about women and minority rights, whereas the right just cuts to the chase and makes them prime minister. Twice.

The first black British prime minister will probably be a Tory too.

But Leo Varadkar would not find a comfortable home in the Tories for one other reason.

He’s too conservative. That’s what people often forget about the British Conservative party. It’s not a conservative party in any real ideological sense.

If anything, it’s been a radical party of right wing economic and political change.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. From 1945 until 1979 the Tories were a party of caution, letting Labour do a lot of the running on changing things with innovations like the National Health Service and the welfare state, and keeping what quietly worked.

The one really radical thing the Tories did, ironically, was to take Britain into Europe, God bless them.

It was only when Mrs Thatcher came to power that the party became a vehicle for rapid restructuring of society with privatisation and trades union reform.

There’s even an argument that by introducing competition over quality control into the television market with the 1990 broadcasting act she drove large elements of TV into the gutter. Yes, it’s true: you can argue that Mrs Thatcher is indirectly responsible for vajazzling.

Compare that radicalism to our Taoiseach and his government and you’ll see a clear ideological divide.

Thatcher wanted change: it’s debatable whether it was good change or bad, but change it was, and heaps of it.

Scrutinise Leo’s approach and you come away with the clear impression that he’s a Tory but of the 19th century variety. A believer in the status quo, of stasis even, and of only the bare minimum change necessary to avoid political defeat.

It’s the common thread, the unifying value that unites his government’s approach to every thing.

Look at housing: they reckon that essentially the private sector will fix it. Nothing radical there.

Health? As before. More money, action plans, all the usual. Take on the vested interests and the work practices and the lack of joined up thinking? Nah.

Corporate taxation? Just keep banging on about 12.5% because we either have no other idea or are afraid of having to explain a new idea to our own voters.

The future of Europe: no alternative plan to President Macron, just oppose change for as long as possible, then buckle for a few quid?   

Political reform: Seanad reform seems to be a rotting carcass abandoned in some shallow political grave, and elected mayors? Apparently not possible before 2024, which means that Fine Gael now tasks meaningful reform of local government as being a task on a timescale more complex that either the defeat of the Third Reich or the United States’ landing of a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

Both already have in-depth proposals to implement sitting in ministerial drawers and both suffering from that old “Yes, Minister” trick of having each minister pretend he’s the first person to ever consider these issues.    

Ah, but what about abortion? The government that finally grasps the proverbial, surely? Yes, it is happening on Leo’s watch, but the ball (or Indiana Jones boulder, depending on where one stands) started rolling on that before he became leader of the country.

He’s just shepherding it through, in the Varadkar manner: minimum change necessary to make the issue go away.

Like most of his generation, Leo has probably seen that famous scene in “The West Wing” where President Bartlet is lambasted by his chief of staff for not being true to his radical self, and proposing a new strategy of letting “Bartlet be Bartlet”.

The problem for Leo is that it is looking more and more apparent that there is no true radical self being held in check by caution. Is the reality that Leo Varadkar has no interest in being an Irish Attlee or Thatcher or Macron? That he’s comfortable not going down as a great reformer like Lemass but is happy to have just been another guy who happened to be Taoiseach for a few years? Then maybe off to Brussels as the first Irish president of the commission or council?

Nothing more than a good tinkering and a new one of those foldly backdrops one launches everything with these days, I suppose. Maybe with another new quango, logo and name in Irish that we all can’t remember. Beats causing a row.  

That’s not to say he’s a bad person. He’s not.

Those of us who want radical change in Irish politics have to be very careful not to project onto new political leaders our own aspirations and hopes where they don’t really exist.

Leo’s Fine Gael is the party of “Easy, now.”

You can’t dismiss it as an unreasonable approach to government. The argument for government based on “first, do no harm” and follow it up with “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is as legitimate an approach to running a country as any other. Other countries are locking people up and rigging elections and rewriting history and closing down newspapers and independent TV channels.

Most of our problems aren’t as much caused by malevolence as good old fashioned incompetence.

It could be an awful lot worse, which, incidentally, seems to be shaping up as FG’s campaign slogan going forward.  

It’s becoming very likely that these guys don’t see themselves as a potentially great government, just a government that happens to be in office.

Effectively, a placeholder government.

Pretty much like Fianna Fail from 1968 to 2011.

It means that that it isn’t really fair to call Leo a modern Tory when he is, in fact, just another Fianna Fail Taoiseach of the “a nice cup of tea and a quiet sit down” variety.

Jack Lynch without the ball control. A nice man.

Or as Orwell put it: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”  

 
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Sure, let’s mock Irexit. But fear it too.

Posted by Jason O on Jan 16, 2018 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.

So apparently Nigel Farage and others (I’ve giving you side-eye, Cormac Lucey) are planning later in this lovely new year to treat us to the joys of Irexit. Before we get into the meat and potatoes, or in Nigel’s case a pint of warm beer and a jellied eel, can we just clarify this whole “Irexit” business? Has anyone tried to actually pronounce this out loud? It sounds like someone desperately trying to stifle a particularly powerful sneeze. We need a new phrase: I nominate “EirGo!” It’s dramatic and just falls off the tongue.

For the benefit of the printed word, let’s stick with Irexit. When the arrival of the Men With Blue Passport Covers was announced, many in the pro-EU Irish establishment (of which I am a proud card carrying member) got stuck in, sneering that there was no support for it here.

To my fellow establishmentarians, I utter that ancient Irish warning: careful now.

There isn’t now. But I have no doubt that at least 35% of the country could be recruited, eventually, to such a cause. You’d do it the same way every political huckster populist of the last decade has done it it.

First you start with money: you point out that Ireland does indeed contribute billions to the EU budget. You throw out that old reliable argument that the Irish are very susceptible to: imagine how that money could be spent here, on the homeless and in the health service?

Put it on a big red bus and you’re sucking diesel.

Now, it’s true that the Irexit coalition is teeming with Thatcherite libertarians who have absolutely no intention spending that money on public services, but needs must.

Next they’ll bang on about how the Irish taxpayer will fund CAP payments to Irish farmers directly, so don’t be worrying about that.

Then they’ll say we should leave the euro so that we can set an appropriate interest rate for Bray and Ballina, not Berlin.They’ll point to the housing bubble, and how too many people got cheap euros lent to them. Don’t ask them about the central bank and lending criteria, a key component of national sovereignty though, as they’ll get all shifty and start banging on about “taking back control”.

There’ll also be more than one leave campaign, as in the UK. This turned out to be very useful as it permitted more and more outlandish statements to be made, and then responded to with “Well, I’m sorry, but MY organisation never said that!”

It’s the equivalent of political action committees (PAC) in the US that are nominally distant from individual candidates yet always seem to be helping one candidate over another.

There’ll be all sorts of statements about immigration control (what they really mean: too many blacks), the need to protect our culture (Too many blacks) and we should be concerned about our national identity (again, too many blacks).

Our old friend “We need to look after our own” with a picture of some poor wretched homeless person will be commandeered for the campaign.

The campaign will also hoover up every petty grievance. Libertarians who think we live in Venezuela will be sitting beside Little Irelanders who think the government should do everything and that we’re actually living in a neoliberal Singapore on the Shannon. People who would absolutely hate to live under each other’s rule will be pretending that Irexit will deliver something the other fella will hate.

The more bitter John Charles McQuaid Sub-Committee for the Saving of Souls wing of the pro-life movement, along with the angry “It isn’t enough!” wing of the pro-choice campaign will get onboard.

The people who believe every conspiracy, including the idea that offshore gas and fish fingers are the key to utopia will be there. Both the “Free State is Treason” and “We should apologise for leaving. Please forgive us, your most majestic majesty” wings of the national question will, ironically, get on board the bandwagon. And the DUP, of course.      

Throw in the “Let’s teach the government a lesson” crowd and you’re up at 35% with relative ease.

Rational thought won’t feature. Why should it? As Nick Clegg showed debating Nigel Farage, calm facts get trounced by my-mate-down-the-pub-said nearly every time.

Take back control. Have your cake and eat it. It’ll all be wheeled out here.

The Brexiteers will rush to “plucky” little Ireland, having only been calling weeks previously for a zombie Cromwell to rise again and smite Paddy for getting all uppity and thinking he was equal to Albion. So will the Trumpian Handmaid’s Tale crowd, talking of evil globalists and the Rothschilds.

The phrase “Bank bailout” will add another 10-15% easily.

And the racists and the nazis?

Well, as that classic Simpsons line goes: “Fox News: Not racist, but No.1 with racists!”  

The Amach-ists will say exactly what those other charlatans said. That Ireland will be able to stay in the single market with all the benefits but without paying and having our own control over anything we don’t like, including tax harmonisation.

If Google or Apple or Microsoft clear their throats loudly at that, they’ll be accused of bullying.

What they won’t want to talk about is the fact that even a country like Britain, far more economically and politically significant than little old us, was not able to get the deal they wanted because the EU is designed to use its heft to defend the interests of its members.

Yet we can somehow get a better deal than we have now?

Our nearest neighbours, the people who once used to run the world, have been so pitifully reduced to the prime minister trying to boast that changing the colour of the cover of one’s passport is a major achievement for a country in negotiations with the EU.

The colour of the passport cover. Seriously.

At its heart, the biggest obstacles Irish leavers will have are twofold.

First, the Irish don’t have the same fear of Brussels that the Brexiteers have. We know we are a small country that has to hustle for what we want, that has to win friends and build alliances. We never arrive at any international gathering thinking we’re entitled to special treatment because of our history. As a result, we don’t constantly shuffle back from Brussels treating everything as a zero-sum “If they’re happy, we must be unhappy” outcome.

Secondly, Irish culture is hardwired to know that it is vital to be where decisions are made. Never mind the EU, this applies in the local GAA or the ICA. You must have a seat at the table. Take tax harmonisation: think an Ireland-free EU couldn’t take decisions on corporate taxation that would affect FDI companies in Ireland? Really? We need to be in the room. That’s the single most important objective of our membership of the European Union.  

The Brexiteers told their own people that won’t really matter, because the EU room is going to vanish anyway.

They’re not so sure now, and it’s that which will make Irexit a difficult (but not impossible) sell to the Irish people.

 
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Ireland needs an LBJ on housing.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 30, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition

There’s a quote, probably falsely attributed to Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychiatrist, about the Irish being impervious to psychoanalysis. Whether he said it or not doesn’t really matter, because the thought behind the quote does have a nugget of truth buried deep within it.

As a people, we’re very comfortable with holding two conflicting views at the same time. We’re also, as a nation, unnaturally obsessed with What Other People Think Of Us. Combine the two and you end up with a culture where people say one thing yet are permanently unhappy because they don’t really believe the thing they say, and get annoyed when other people take them at their word.

The housing debate is the latest area where this applies. Last week the government seemed to engage in extraordinarily hamfisted attempts to lead public debate about the homelessness situation.  I mean, who on Earth thought that comparing our homeless figures to some other country would take the pressure off? Homelessness, particularly in Dublin, is a gut instinct, an issue you don’t really rely on figures but on one’s own experiences. Seeing bundles of rags shivering in shop doorways is what tells us there’s a problem, not comparing us to the Copenhagen metropolitan district. It’s nearly impossible to stand outside a pub in Dublin on a warm-ish evening and not have a procession of people begging off you. I counted eight people over a ninety minute period on one evening.

It’s an issue we want fixed, right?

Sort of. We say we do, and we get indignant as the issue seems to get worse. As the nights get cold and winter comes in, we all know people are going to die. We know that right now. There are people alive as I write this who will be dead, from homeless related causes, in the next twelve weeks.

Should we declare a national emergency? Hell yes!

Should we appoint a long-term housing czar, taking the issue out of party politics? Damn right!

Should we give him an enormous ball of public money? Of course!

Should we hold an emergency referendum to give him the powers to override legal and planning delays to rapidly build, to whatever height, wherever he sees fit?

Woah there Nelly, steady on there, now, let’s not go mad.

You see, the whole debate is stifled by a flaw at its core. The theory behind democracy is that it’s about the vigorous competition between competing solutions to common problems. The voters identify the problem, the parties duke it out, each pitching their own solution. Then the voters choose which option they believe is most viable. All perfectly logical, save for one vital conceit.

The voters are lying. They won’t admit it, but they’re willing to put up with homelessness if the alternative inconveniences them by building something near them they don’t like. But they won’t say that. That would be fine if there was a party willing to call them out on that. Like, say, a genuine left wing party willing to say that the needs of the wretched outweigh the needs of the already housed. But we don’t have a genuinely left wing party, just various shades of populist who start to sweat kidney stones if there’s a danger they might end up on the unpopular side of an issue. In the words of Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker: “There goes the mob. I am their leader. I must follow them.”

No, it’s much easier to bang on about how housing is caused by ideology, how the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail partnership government is riddled with corruption and builders money burning a hole in their Panamanian bank accounts and all the rest.

If only it were that simple. If the problem was just a load of crooks the solution would be straightforward. Vote them out.

But it’s not, and they’re not.

The reason they’re making such little progress on housing is because they know, deep down, the public want new housing built but only in places that won’t effect, you know, the public.

It’s as simple as that. Yes, we can join all the dots about planning and funding and zoning and height restrictions and dual aspect and minimum square metrage, and they all matter, but the politicians know one thing over everything else.

Local voters vote against new housing entrants into their area, and cast their votes for councillors and TDs accordingly.

Supporting new local housing needs political courage, and political courage in modern Ireland is not a plentiful commodity.

In 1957 John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer prize for “writing” (he didn’t) “Profiles in courage”, a book about US senators who took courageous stands on issues of personal conscience against popular opinion. Ironically, one of the greatest 20th century profiles in courage displayed was then by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, in supporting the 1964 civil rights act and the 1965 voting rights act knowingly destroyed his own party’s voter core in the US south in pursuit of black voting rights.

The Democratic party literally walked away from its own most racist voters. No prizes for guessing which party jettisoned its traditional black voters faster than you could say Abraham Lincoln and ran towards the white sheets, by the way.

Where is our LBJ? It’s a big ask, admittedly. Expecting an Irish politician to make decisions that they know are extremely unpopular and will almost certainly destroy them politically is expecting an awful lot. The sort of thing that one would never expect of the ordinary voter. On top of that, there’s also the reality that one’s noble action will probably not be acknowledged in one’s life- time. Look at how we regard the late Brian Lenihan compared to Brian Cowan, two men who pretty much made the same decisions.

But then, that’s the difference between a mere politician, of whom we have no shortage, and most of whom will be forgotten, and a statesman.

Even with the political will, it’ll probably take at least a decade to build the level of housing we need. That’s assuming, by the way, that as we build it doesn’t lower housing costs, improve the country’s attractiveness, and increase housing demand. But the political titan who makes the decisions will have been despised by the already housed and probably have been hounded from office way before the first new tenants and owners finally move into their new homes. Like those who spoke against segregation in the southern US states, their friends, work colleagues, neighbours even family spitting on them, he or she will have to be satisfied by the inner light. The voice that says you are doing the right thing.    

You don’t need courage to agree with the popular opinion. Those who supported marriage equality 20 years ago, they were the brave ones, not the ones last year. Those who opposed the 8th amendment in 1983, they’re the courageous ones. No one dared wear a “Repeal” sweater in 1984.

Show me a housing minister who says we’re going high-rise in Dublin and we’re going to fast-track it, and no, you won’t be able to block it in the courts, and I’ll show you a profile in courage.

 
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Immigration works. But that doesn’t mean we should not debate it openly.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 28, 2017 in European Union, Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition

If one wants to know how fast immigration can change a society, then look no further than my family. First, a disclaimer: my father was, and remains, a successful businessman and so we had what could be colloquially referred to as “the few bob”. Culturally, however, we were still the standard bacon and cabaiste one-generation-from-the-soil middle-class Dublin family. We didn’t quite know what the ads for Tetra Delta on the radio were for, but we did know that immature fluke was a bad thing. We knew that Lucozade was partially medicinal because it came in orange cellophane, and that the tearing sound of the sellotape being pulled off a tin of USA biscuits declared a significant social event, possibly involving a monsignor and that most fabled of Irish shrines, the Good Room. We do still have a priest in the family, which used to be standard issue in most Irish families, and he’s also an American, in at least he has lived in the US for most of his life and speaks with an American twang.

That used to be the law, I suspect. Every household in Switzerland has an automatic assault rifle to be used in time of invasion. We went one step further: in Ireland every house had to have an actual American.

Nothing unusual so far.

Then modern Ireland intervened: now there’s my stepmother, who is Filipino, and my young brother and two younger sisters who are half Filipino but born here.

Then there’s my sister-in-law, who is Brazilian.

This is all a big deal: I grew up in the generation that regarded Phil Lynott as exotic, yet now we have family parties and weddings full of Brazilians and Filipinos and others. Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, is regularly spoken in the house, as is Portuguese.   

Guess what? It’s great.

My father and my brother love their wives, and our family photos are now full of pasty-faced indigenous old Irish staring anxiously into the lens as if our souls were being stolen, and the new Irish, who actually look good in photos.

For my family, immigration has worked.

When I hear people banging on about “them coming over here” and the need to “look after our own first” I’ll be honest, the blood gets up. The immigrants I know work hard, mostly doing jobs many of the Irish won’t do. Maybe immigrants do take some jobs that Irish people would do, but more often than not I’d wager many of those jobs just wouldn’t be done at all. Would it force employers to increase wages to fill those jobs? In some cases, almost certainly. But that would also force up prices and we know who price rises hurt first. I’ll give you a clue: not the people browsing in Brown Thomas.  

In short, I’ve no doubt that immigration makes a country richer, attracting the sort of people with the initiative to travel across the world, away from their families and loved ones to seek a better life. A country benefits from having those sort of people in it: just look at the number of immigrant businesses you see around the place.

I’ll tell you one other reason why I think immigration is a good thing: it gives us a good kick up the derriere about what a great country we live in.

You see it in the faces of those ceremonies where people are given their citizenship. Getting their Irish passport means something. They dress up for the day. They proudly display their certificates and photos of the day they officially became Irish. They weren’t born Irish: they chose it.  

We could all do with a bit of that.

Having said that, there’s still a debate that has to be had about immigration.

First, it starts by admitting that wanting to debate it does not make you Sir Oswald Mosley. Immigration brings rapid change to a country, as my own family knows, and it’s perfectly logical for a country to want to debate, plan and decide what it as a society wants out of immigration.

Secondly, there’s nothing racist about a country wanting to ensure that those coming to live here share our values.

Of course, one of the reasons we struggle to even have that debate is because it is not one we are comfortable having ourselves. How do you inform a newcomer to our land of their obligations as a citizen when we don’t want to even discuss that amongst ourselves the indigenous population? Irish politicians can wax so lyrical about people’s entitlements that you’d can almost hear a bodhran playing in the background when they elocute. But get them to start listing out what obligations to the nation their voters have as citizens and they’ll leg it faster than you can say “Who left this tap running all night?”  

Finally, there’s a reality about immigration that needs to be confronted. It was brought up in many working class areas during the Brexit referendum, and there’s a ring of truth to it. Immigration may well generate wealth, and make a country as a whole richer. But there’s no guarantee that said wealth will be shared out in any noticeable way.

Many who complain that society getting richer doesn’t affect them in any positive way, or that the rich (who do benefit from immigration) don’t pay any tax anyway never manage to explain who exactly pays for the welfare, health and education services they benefit from. Because invariably it’s not them.

Many complain that immigrants are taking up houses and jobs and public service resources that the indigenous population could be using. There’s probably some truth to that. But there’s hardly any talk about how much tax immigrants pay, and for less rights generally. You can work and pay more tax than you ever get back in public services in this country and still be turfed out of it, or you can sit in front of the telly for a lifetime whinging about how you’ve been hard done by, and get to stay because you were privileged enough (and it is a privilege) to be born Irish.

We talk a lot about taking care of “our own”, but I’m not sure that I buy being “one of our own” automatically merits my loyalty as opposed to towards a newcomer who wants to play by our rules and contribute towards the well-being of our community.

Fr Brendan Smyth was “one of our own”. In fact, pretty much every pervert who molested a kid in this country was “one of our own”. The Omagh bombers were “one of our own”.

Immigration is mostly a good thing, but it does create new problems. Before we point the finger at immigrants for all our woes, let us all consider an ugly reality: the main challenge immigrants face is that a large section of the country demand of them standards that they’d be outraged about if the state ever applied to themselves.

Let us never forget: for most of our independence we had negligible inward immigration. We barely had the proverbial pot to relieve ourselves in either.

These two factors are not totally unconnected.

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