Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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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.

 
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If young voters want respect they must first create fear among politicians.

Posted by Jason O on Dec 26, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

pol books2Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland

Conventional wisdom is a powerful thing. Take the budget: every year, regardless of whatever party is in power, pensioners get pandered to. Governments throw whatever they can afford at them, and opposition parties give themselves hernias protesting that it’s not enough. If it was polite to render garments and fling themselves on the floor of the chamber, they would. selves wailing onto the floor of the Dail chamber they would do so happily.

Nobody dares to ask if this is the best use of finite resources? Is giving a pensioner an extra €5 really a better use of millions of euro than, say, directing that money into providing affordable accommodation for students?

Of course it’s not. A fiver is a fiver.

But we don’t look at it that way, and we know why.

Pensioners scare the bejesus out of politicians. Young people don’t.

We can’t be that surprised that as a result young people get screwed on issues like housing or job security. Politicians simply don’t believe young people are an asset or a threat to them.

One reason is that nobody is corralling young people into a coherent political force.

Take the Union of Students in Ireland, which claims to represent 374,000 third level students in the country. If USI was a party with a first preference vote that strong it would have gotten a vote equal to Sinn Fein and the Anti-Austerity Alliance together in the 2016 general election. Between them they won 29 seats in the Dail. No mean feat.

Ah, says you, but students don’t all vote the same.

That’s true. That’s also the problem, because that’s exactly what politicians think too.

That pensioners do vote the same way on the issues that relate directly to them. Target pensioner voters with a direct negative policy like taking their medical cards off them and they will come at you with a vengeance.

Young voters, on the other hand, are all over the shop, assuming they even turn up, and so can be ignored.

Whose fault is that?

Supposing, say, USI decided to actually field candidates in the next general election. Could the union deliver anything close to its nominal membership in first preferences?

USI has pushed voter registration in the past, and “lobbied” on student issues, but that means nothing if you haven’t got a stick to wave and a willingness to use it.

Think the IFA or GAA accept a nominal pre-budget meeting and a few scraps? Think they don’t have a good idea what they’re actually getting in the budget?

Yes, student opinions are all over the shop. Polls show that Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail respectively are the two most popular parties with young people but surely a USI candidate running purely on a platform of building more affordable student housing should be able to take a respectable share of first preferences in constituencies with major colleges?

On a side note, by the way,  the fact that SF and FF, ironically the most pro-life parties in the country, are most popular with young voters must raise an issue about how important those voters actually regard the abortion issue. But that’s a whole other debate.

Even if USI candidates failed to get elected, if a half dozen USI candidates got half a quota each, that would make politicians sit up because votes and preferences are the coin of the political realm. If USI warned that in the next election not only would it run candidates again, but it would publicly nominate specific candidates or parties for its second preferences, then they start to matter.

All that assumes that USI or other young voter advocates can get young voters to the polls in numbers that matter, and not just on a once-off like abortion or marriage equality. But make TDs fear for their seats and they’ll pay attention.

Decisions, as President Bartlet said, are made by those who turn up.

 
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Ireland is a great country. Why do so many of us get upset when someone says so?

Posted by Jason O on Dec 9, 2017 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

Previous published in The Sunday Times Ireland. 

If you’re ever sitting in the snug of your tavern of choice, two pints in and of a disposition to start a good all-cannons-roaring row, I’ve just the trigger phrase for you. Never mind your religion or football, that’s amateur hour. For the full finger-jabbed-in-chest and threat of jerseys being pulled out of shape in the car park later, just lob out the following:

“I think we’ve got an world-class health service.”

Make it nice and loud. Not shouty, just nice and clear. That’s all you need, because somewhere in the pub a pair of ears will prick up and a spike in blood pressure will occur. Because there is no shortage of people in this country willing not only to argue the point, but regard it as an act of heresy.

Now, I’m not talking a disagreement of HSE priorities. I’m not talking a debate about small and local versus regional and specialist. These are all legitimate points of policy debate.

I’m talking “Health service? We don’t have a health service!” The words third-world and medieval will be bellowed out like political shibboleths. There will be anger at you for questioning the popular myth that the health service is not in absolute chaos, incapable of delivering even basic services.

Yet here’s the thing: we have a good health service. By global standards, our life expectancy and access to high quality healthcare is very good. There are plenty of countries that look at us and aspire to be us.

And not just in health. I’ll go further. I’ll argue that we are a contender to be the greatest country in the world to live in. I’ll not guarantee it, but I’ll certainly place our name in contention.

You would be hard pressed to find a country with our level of political freedom, our standard of living, our social safety net, and our rights.

Yes, we have problems. Our hospital waiting lists or the number of people sleeping on our streets will tell you that. Our national debate over abortion is a battle about rights too.

But altogether, being an Irish citizen is, amongst the seven billion people on this planet, a winning lottery ticket.

You will live longer than most Africans. You don’t fear the secret police thugs of Erdogan or Kim Jong Un. You don’t fear the legal state executions of the United States. You don’t have the rigged elections of Russia, nor the toilet paper shortages of Venezuela. Any one of us Irish citizens, without even being born on this island, can be elected head of state. That’s not true elsewhere. There’s a four year old wandering around Windsor Castle who is head of state designate of Canada, Australia and New Zealand without even knowing what they are, never mind where they are. Unlike any Canadian, Australian or Kiwi.

Yet have someone tell you that, have an international agency or publication remark as to the great achievement this nation is and watch the anger. Read the comments under any good news story about Ireland, and the vitriol flows. It’s like it’s hardwired into us. If an Irish government told us that we’d get a full weeks’ pay but only have to work on Tuesdays, you know what the response would be. What? Every Tuesday?

What is it that makes us have such an irrational attitude to our national successes? That doesn’t see them as building blocks from which to turn a good country into a great country? I often wonder is it the Dublin Castle hangover, that hundreds of years of foreign rule has almost genetically programmed us to believe that we just aren’t really in charge of ourselves as a people.

That Them in Power are, and with that a permanent sense of victimhood and grievance to go with it, sub-consciously refusing to accept that we are the controllers of our own destiny? After all, who’s fault is it that we keep voting for the political equivalent of the rhythm method and then are shocked to find ourselves once again up disappointment duff?

We spent the first seventy years of our independence accusing each other of betrayal whilst thousands went off to look for a country run by someone else other than us to live in and give us opportunity. Bear in mind the ultimate indignity we never talk about: that from day one of our independence, our people were leaving voluntarily to go live under the people we’d just thrown out. There’s a country with victim hard-baked in.

You see it with Irish emigrants, who give out yards about our health service and employers and paying for water, then move to that paradise of socialized medicine and workers rights, the US, or that damp, waterlogged bog that is Australia. For some reason, having someone non-Irish demanding you pay for your healthcare or water is acceptable in a way we’d never accept at home. It’s as if the ultimate crime in Ireland is that of “having notions”. Look at your man, thinking he’s like the now-departed Brits, with his water meters and “rules”.

And yet: here’s a country that held onto democracy when fascists and communists looked like being the coming thing. A country that kept its culture whilst also using the world’s dominant language. A country that saw, and sees in European integration not sheer terror and inferiority but a playing pitch that we can not only compete on but compete on well. A country that dismisses the ideological strait jacket of right or left as the over-thumbed missives of fanatics. We have built a centrist homeland based on a mixture of freedom and Whatever Works.

The Irish model has its flaws. We see it everyday. 687,000 people on waiting lists is jaw-dropping stuff. But there are also hundreds of thousands of people who go through our health service every year, getting the treatment they need. There are dozens and dozens of nations who would look at us and say “We want that”. Our passports are cherished documents.

Most of all, we don’t have despair. We aren’t doomed. We know we can solve the waiting lists and build the homes if we have but the will to do so. But it will require us making choices about sacrifice, of time, effort and taxes.

That in itself is an achievement. A nation where its people face free choices about how we spend our finite resources is the ultimate demonstration of a successful sovereign independent nation.

Just ask anyone eating tree bark north of the 38th parallel, or sitting in a leaky boat in the Mediterranean. Or looking for a Twix in Caracas.

 
0

We should teach globalization.

WTOPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

I used to work with a guy who regarded me as the spokesperson for the “Right-wing Thatcherite” FF/PD coalition. He was very left-wing himself, and despite living in a house provided by the taxpayer, having a medical card, children’s allowance and paying almost no income tax himself he would savage the government on a daily basis for being anti-working class. His solution to every thing was a 32 county socialist republic where people like me would pay far more tax.

Occasionally, he would declare that he would be happy himself to pay more tax to achieve “social justice”.

Then one day he turned up with a load of cartons of cigarettes which he’d bought off a fella on Moore Street which were not, shall we say, tax compliant. I challenged him on this.

Without a glimmer of shame he replied “Yeah, but the amount of tax on cigarettes is ridiculous!”

To his credit, he wasn’t being evasive about his tax evasion. When I pointed out that the billions raised on tobacco funded public services, he was only interested in how unfair the level of tax was. This from a guy who savaged me on every other day about uncaring cuts to health and welfare budgets.

He genuinely could not see the connection, and in fairness, who could blame him?

After all, who is making it their task to explain the link between taxes raised and public services provided, other than the odd ranting bearded columnist?

It’s not just Irish public spending. I had a discussion with a successful businessman who could not understand why government could not refuse to buy products or services from abroad. When told that other governments could do the same, he was genuinely perplexed that the two could be linked.

Watching debates about Brexit and Trumpist protectionism, it’s becoming clear that the very concept of critical thinking is coming under threat in modern western society. People want to be able to buy low cost items whilst complaining at the same time about free trade.

There are two sides to this. One is the social acceptance not necessarily of ignorance, but the belief that all opinions must have equal weight. Just listen to how much broadcast current affairs coverage is taken up with vox pops. You can hear heart-rendering stories about people struggling with homelessness, yet come away from the story not knowing how many housing offers by that same council were refused by people on waiting lists, and why. It’s almost regarded as impolite to challenge a non-politician on anything they say, although there is an exception made for HSE officials and anybody in any form of business.

Perhaps we need to teach globalisation in our schools as a subject in itself? After all, it is the single factor that will almost certainly shape the lives of the next generation of kids and probably their kids too. Globalisation as a subject would almost certainly be a lesson in critical thinking itself. I’m not talking about it as a defence of free market ideology either, because there are arguments to be made for protectionism as well. But as means of getting the next generation of voters to understand that the 21st century is a devilishly complicated and integrated place, and that pulling lever X will cause something to happen in Y.

From people who think that scrapping the government jet or TD salaries will solve all our problems to the man who rang up Joe Duffy suggesting that the government could reduce house prices by ordering everybody to knock a zero off their house value, we struggle to connect the dots. At few points in our secondary education, still the highest level most people will reach, will we be required to logically dismantle and explain big concepts like taxation vs spending, or international trade.

Instead, people are permitted to separate connected issues, and demand lower priced products, higher wages, and private sector innovation at the same time, as if they have no relationship to each other. People talk about how nobody elected the bond markets without grasping that you have to sell bonds to them and take their money in the first place for them to have any power over you.  

Of course, we know where it leads. Venezuela is currently led by the most economically illiterate policy-decided-down-the-pub government in the world, ordering supermarkets to sell below cost and then wondering why there is no toilet paper on the shelves the following week.

That country also shows us where such a failure of rational thought leads: suspicion and constant fingers being pointed at “them”. We see the same in Brexit England and Trump’s America: an almost Salem-like belief that dark forces are the cause of all problems, and their eradication the solution to everything from job-replacing technology to consumer forces to demographics. Trump and Wilders and Le Pen are the modern Witchfinders General of the age of emotional suspicion over reason.

There’s a scene in the movie “Whoops Apocalypse” where Peter Cook plays an insane but extremely popular prime minister who believes pixies cause unemployment, and proposes to create jobs by throwing employed people off a cliff.

We used to laugh at stuff like that. These days, not so much. If we’re not careful, yesterday’s satire could be tomorrow’s presidential tweet.       

 
0

The Great Voter Transfer Window.

Marine-LePenPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

The answer is staring us in the face. It’s so simple. On this side of the Atlantic we have a bunch of  Islamophobic globalist conspiracy-fearing The Past was Just Better Somehow voters. On the other side we have a bunch of Islamophobic globalist conspiracy-fearing voters.

Wouldn’t they all be happier together? Or put it another way. Imagine Hillary voters stepping off a boat onto a continent with no death penalty, universal healthcare, strict gun control and where even conservatives support the welfare safety net? Who think countries working together is actually normal and not a conspiracy of the Rothschild family?

See where I’m coming from here?

We need an Atlantic voter transfer window. We send them our crazies, we take their rationals.

There are challenges, of course, but also opportunities. Don’t tell me there isn’t a huge TV opportunity in watching Trump, Wilders and Le Pen voters getting to know each other.

“Wait a minute: you guys speak French?”

“Pardon? To whom do I give this doctor’s bill? What? I have to pay for it myself? Sacre bleu!”

But at least they could agree on one thing: they all hate Muslims.

“A toast to our American friends!”

“Eh, pardon Madame Le Pen, but we don’t drink wine here. Alcohol is evil! This here is a dry county!”

“Eh, OK…can we all agree that Muslims are terrible?”

“Yes!”

“Nearly as bad as the Jews!”

“Eh, steady on there.”

“And don’t get me started on them darn tootin’ homosexuals!”

“No, we’re against the Muslims because they’re against the homosexuals.”

“The Muslims are against the homosexuals?”

We did this once before, you know.

Put a load of fanatics on a boat and sent them to America.

It was called the Mayflower.

 
0

Elected mayors are the silver bullet

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

Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.

For many Dubs there is a special place reserved in Hell, even beneath the frozen alive for all eternity form of Judas Iscariot, just for that bane of the average Dubliners’ life, The Corpo.

The Corpo, or to give it its formal title, Dublin City Council, gets terrible stick. Of course it does, being given the thankless task of governing a region of the nation for which permanent indignation is the default setting. More than most other counties, the county symbol of Dublin should be a Dub shuffling along with an inflatable crucifix, given my native county’s natural disposition towards believing everything is just terrible.

Let’s be clear: Dublin City Council isn’t the worst. It makes mistakes, of course, but as with so many Irish institutions it suffers from a lack of ownership. Most Dubliners don’t think of the city council as their council, and so its decisions are dismissed as at best arbitrary and at worst the product of some hidden elite agenda. Dubliners don’t elect the man who actually runs the city, Owen Keegan. A man who will spend a budget of nearly €863m in 2017. Yeah, sure, the city council nominally sets the budget. We all know the reality. Once the rubber stamp thumps down on the budget, it’s over to Owen.   

Just look at the debates on getting cars out of the city centre, or building proper physically segregated cycle lanes that don’t rely on the frankly overrated power of a millimetre of paint to protect cyclists from traffic. Indeed, local authorities would probably be just as effective using the cycle lane paint to paint pentagrams on our roads to cast Satanic spells to protect cyclists. I doubt it would be any worse.

These are big issues, with strong arguments on both sides. The decision to reduce car access to the city centre is one which will have an impact on the quality of life of both people who use the city centre and those who drive there. It’s a question of convenience versus a more continental lifestyle.

These are issues that affect ordinary Dubliners every day. That’s why there was such heated debate about them during the local elections in 2014.

What’s that? You don’t remember that debate? Actually, you’re right. You don’t recall it because it didn’t happen, because our local elections are so parochially focussed that city or county-wide issues hardly ever get debated. Instead, you get right down to an individual lamppost or speed ramp on a street, or the future of the Palestinian people. But the future of Dublin city? Never.

There’s a very simple reason why. There are no votes in it. There is no time when you as a voter get to vote for a person at local level with the responsibility to actually make decisions.

TDs lobby. Cllrs call for things. But actual county-wide decisions are for the most part made by unelected county chief executives. It’s not that they make bad decisions. But they’re not our decisions. I attended a briefing in Dublin City Council years ago in my Progressive Democrat days where the then city manager, John Fitzgerald, and his team laid out the strategy for the development of Dublin. It was very impressive, and his team were well on top of their briefs. But they actually laughed out loud when asked about councillor input. Not out of arrogance, but because councillors for the most part just weren’t interested.

Take another county or city-wide issue: housing. Who is in charge of building houses in the city? Who can we fire in the polling booth for not delivering? Local councillors are more interested in stopping housing developments to placate voters who have actual homes. Only a county-wide mayor has a big enough constituency to be genuinely frightened by people who use housing as their first preference deciding issue. Imagine an independent Housing First candidate for mayor of Greater Dublin. He or she won’t win, but every candidate will be falling over them trying to get their second preferences. Suddenly housing is a real election issue. It’s the same with cycle lanes and reducing car access. A single-seat election, either at county or regional election, and suddenly every candidate can’t ignore those issues, because 50% of the vote is much harder to get than a usual quota. At a city-wide level, suddenly both the cyclist and motorist vote matters.   

This is why we need elected mayors with the power to raise money and spend it.

If there is a single political reform Leo Varadkar could introduce that has the potential to seriously change how Irish politics works, it is letting every county directly elect a full-time executive mayor.

From Dublin’s perspective, it would create a single individual not just charged with approaching the city as a region, but who could be dismissed directly by its people. Real proper accountability.

For the counties outside Dublin it would not only do the same but also recognize that Dublin shouldn’t be the centre of all politics and ideas. That every county should be able to set its own path.

Politicians don’t like the idea, because it shines the spotlight too closely on someone. Councillors say they want councils because it’s more democratic, but that’s not the answer. The reason so many councillors are against elected mayors is because a) they like their year-long responsibility free look-at-my-chain ego trip, and b) they like being able to hide amongst their colleagues.

“It’s not my fault X didn’t happen. I was in favour but all the other councillors were against it.”

In the ward next door another councillor is saying the exact same thing.

And the ward after that. And the ward after that.

But this changes everything. Suddenly there’ll be a new generation of public office holders whom the public know actually have budgets and the power to spend them. Some will do a Homer Simpson, blow their budgets in a reckless bid to be popular. Maybe so. Let them, because it’ll be the people of the county who will then have to suffer the consequences of their vote.

Some of the elected mayors will be awful chancers. But others will transform their counties, turning Leitrim into the Vegas of Ireland, or Wicklow into fashionable Brighton. Maybe the mayor of Kerry will fill the ditches of the kingdom with the overturned cars of people who have had very big dinners. Some may even try to turn Fingal or Dublin City into Havana or Caracas, putting commercial rates through the roof or trying to erect statues of Che Guevera or Stalin or The Unknown Provo on O’Connell Street.

Good: let them try. It’s time to take the stabilisers off the voters and the politicians.  

It’s the next step in breaking the Dublin Castle mentality that permeates the nation. That we are a nation of grown-ups who have to make decisions.

By the way, one final thing: Owen Keegan hasn’t been a bad city chief executive. I suspect he wouldn’t make a bad mayor either, and I’d seriously consider voting for him. But I would like the opportunity to make that call. After all, it is my money he’s spending. 

 

 

 

 
1

We need to take the lead on tax harmonisation.

Previously published in The Sunday Times Ireland Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us. The island between Boston and Berlin.

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

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

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

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