Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Here’s a quiz to get your brain cogs whirring this morning. Aside from being (or having been) semi-state bodies, what do Aer Lingus, Eircom, Dublin Bus, RTE and the National Car Test all have in common? The answer is that all improved their services after encountering direct competition and the idea that their performance might actually affect their existence.
This occurred to me whilst watching last week’s formal opening of the Annual Shall We Sack The Garda Commissioner festival. We’re all familiar with the format. Something involving the guards explodes into the public consciousness, and we do the traditional Irish thing of either blaming The System as if we have no control over it, or we point to the current incumbent and make them Baddie of the Week.
It’ll rumble on a bit, and then we might get the old “personal health/family reasons” letter, she heads off with her pension, the next one steps up, and we all agree to meet around this cauldron same time next year to kick it off again. We should probably make Garda scandal day a bank holiday. At least that way we’d all get a weekend out of it.
At its heart is an issue about the Garda Siochana. Now, before I kick off, let me say that for various professional and personal reasons I’ve had a not unreasonable amount of dealings with the Gardai. I’ve got to be honest: I found them professional, courteous and diligent. But one thing that struck me in all my dealings with them is that really good Gardai, and there are really good Gardai, are good despite their organisation, not because of it.
I’ve had encounters with young guards who are incredibly frustrated by the fact that their own technology, their personal phones and laptops, are vastly superior to the equipment they are supposed to use. I’ve seen them handwriting reams of statements which then have to be typed up. I’ve participated in a line-up where the victim was expected to enter the room, walk up to the alleged person who’d beat seven bells out of them earlier that day, and place his hand on the suspects’ shoulder.
I wasn’t the suspect, just in case you’re wondering.
We have a force that is physically courageous and clean by international standards. When I say that, people snort, but it’s true. We don’t have a culture of street cops shaking us down for cash, which is common enough in some countries: I know of one person who was robbed on the street by police offers in St Petersburg. But it is also a force that is not fit for 21st century purpose, and we have to ask ourselves why.
In the old Tom & Jerry cartoons of the 1940s, and in the old “Batman” TV show in the 1960s, it was taken as read that large numbers of police in Boston, Chicago and New York were actual Irish immigrants or of Irish descent. Why was that? Was it because as a people we were drawn to law and order? If you knew us as a people, you’d think that highly unlikely. No, the Irish joined the police because it was a good pensionable job. It offered security, and that is a culture which permeates most Irish public bodies. The terms and conditions of the body’s employees are often, unofficially, the primary concern of the organisation.
As I mentioned earlier, this culture has been forced to change when public bodies actually start to lose business to competition, and questions about their actual necessity start to get asked. That forced Dublin Bus to start providing a dedicated service to Dublin airport, or Eircom and Aer Lingus to lower their prices.
Almost uniquely, the Garda Siochana have, by the nature of its mission, being exempt from those same pressures, and it shows. It’s not that the force hasn’t changed or improved, but not at the same noticeable pace as the rest of the semi-state sector. Look at the forces record on dealing with white collar crime and especially political corruption. Or try and report a case of internet fraud to a Garda station (which Paypal require you to do in such cases) and watch the blank face on an older Garda. Again, I have a relative who was lectured by a desk sergeant about staying away from “that internet thing”. Is that official Garda policy in a country with notions about being the digital hub of Europe?
The Garda need competition, and here’s how we do it. We outsource those areas where the Gardai are failing, like political corruption, white collar and internet crime. Let’s put it out to tender, for a fixed contract period, and see if we can get some large US or UK private security or law firm interested. The successful applicant will have the same Garda powers and legal restraints in those areas, and be paid a bonus on conviction in an Irish court. They’ll be answerable to GSOC.
What do we have to lose? The Gardai are not doing much in those areas anyway, so any increase in activity is to the good, and might force the Gardai to modernise out of sheer fear of that greatest of all Irish motivators, the fear of being shown up.
And here’s the beauty: if it doesn’t work, we can sack all of them.
Posted by Jason O on Mar 18, 2017 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Some years ago, I had to collect a relative from Dublin airport. The flight had been delayed, and it was quite late, and as I stood in arrivals I noticed a former Taoiseach standing in the small waiting crowd. Watching him for a while, it was striking that he got none of the double-taking that even well-known politicians get. He’d been the most powerful man in the country, and now was hardly noticed.
He hadn’t been a bad Taoiseach. It felt like he’d just, for the most part, physically been there. Like Enda.
Whilst it’s fair to say that Enda Kenny had achievements as Taoiseach, overall, as he prepares to leave office, you can’t help feeling that the phrase “squandered opportunities” will be the one that hangs most around the Kenny era. Here was a man whose government came to power with the greatest majority ever, and with a momentum in the country willing to toss aside the old ways of doing politics. He leaves office with the political system, in terms of where actual decision making power lies, in almost the exact shape that he found it.
His successor, whomever it is, needs to ponder that. The refusal to radically change the system didn’t help Enda in the long run. He’s not leaving office of his own volition, but just one step ahead of a political posse.
The next Taoiseach has to decide whether that is what he wants to be too? Another placeholder holding on by his fingernails until he too gets turfed out? Or a man with a body of work that will be his legacy. If he’s the latter, he needs to get cracking from day one.
I have, much to your surprise, dear reader, I’m sure, a few suggestions for our new Taoiseach.
First, decide in your head that less is more. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, advised that rather than overpromise, politicians should under-promise and over-deliver, and not make a big hullabaloo about a policy until it is actually up and running. Don’t make vague and unmeasurable promises about “tackling” the housing crisis and A&E. Decide what you can actually do, do it, then declare it.
There are a number of things you can do quite easily. One, for example, involves a simple clear statement as Taoiseach stating that anyone who paid their water charges will get their money back. These are your heartland, and it’s time they got some respect for obeying the law you passed.
Secondly, explain in a straightforward way, face to camera, why the national children’s hospital has to be built in a congested urban area and not on the M50: there may be very good reasons, but no one in government seems capable of communicating them so far.
Reconsider the whole free GP visits for all proposal. It looks great on paper, but all it will really do is create waiting lists to see GPs. Like it or not, charging for GPs forces patients to perform their own triage. However, do recognise that the squeezed middle without medical cards are paying for everything: give them vouchers for a few free GP visits a year. It eases the burden without flooding GP surgeries.
Next, recognise that voter education, or rather, the lack of it, is the issue that is poisoning politics across the west and could easily do so here. Just look at the number of people on Obamacare who voted to abolish Obamacare and are now shocked to be losing their Obamacare. Government, the matching of finite taxes to infinite public service demand, is going to more and more require the public understanding why choices are being made. As it happens, the last Dail has done a lot of work on this. There is a proposed electoral commission, and minister Eoghan Murphy’s Tax Transparency bill is sitting in the bowels of the Oireachtas somewhere. Let these both be fast-tracked through as the beginning of an active campaign to educate voters as to why decisions are made.
Then move onto making the opposition work for their salaries. For years we’ve been promised an Oireachtas Budget Office that would take opposition proposals through the ringers and make sure the sums were right. Not only should you set it up, you should task it to automatically cost every opposition spending proposal. The opposition work for the taxpayers too: we’re entitled to value off them as well.
While you’re at it, push through elected mayors and that Seanad reform bill. A Seanad elected on a non-geographical basis will focus on national policy, as government has to. And elected mayors are the antidote to reckless opposition: let a load of Alphabet Left and Sinn Fein mayors have to legally choose between increased property taxes and local public services. Make them make decisions.
Finally, invite every EU member state with a population of less than 6m, all twelve of them, to a Summit of the Small. We’re forever complaining when Germany, France and the big six have their summits. Let’s have ours, and send out a clear message that we will defend the free-movement free-trade single market Europe and the sovereignty of small nations.
From day one as Taoiseach, you have a choice. You can just physically be Taoiseach, or you can set out to change the direction of society.
No prizes for guessing which one gets remembered.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, becoming aware of politics, Sunday morning seemed to me to be an important time. Just before the Sunday dinner the opening credits of “Weekend World” would erupt from the television. The show about British politics, presented by former Labour MP Brian Walden, was nearly always too heavy for me to watch, but I always came away with two impressions.
The first was that its theme music, the prog rock group Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride” seemed to me as a kid a bit too mischievous for a political programme theme, in that, played over scenes off that week’s political events, it made politics look very exciting indeed.
The second was that this was a serious programme for serious people. The politicians who went on it, the Denis Healeys, the Nigel Lawsons, the Roy Jenkins, seemed to be very big beasts. They had to be, because Walden conducted what we now call a “forensic interview”. A minister or opposition spokesperson had to know their brief, not because the show got a large audience but because the guests knew that their colleagues and the press gallery would all be watching, and making a bags on “Weekend World” had an impact on your reputation as a serious player.
I was reminded of the show recently watching Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar teeing up to replace Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. How would all three men handle a serious-big-picture-with- details interview on their vision for Taoiseach? One challenge for all three is the tendency of Irish politicians to see an interview not as an opportunity to test an idea or communicate an objective, but as a chore to be endured. Usually with the presentation of a bingo card of safe inoffensive guff phrases like “world class health service” and “meeting the challenges” and listing out everything as a priority. Requests for detail will be met with declarations of support for “Comprehensive reviews”. In short, they try to ride out the clock and get the hell out of there without giving away too much.
We know for certain that the current Taoiseach does struggle with detailed interviews. Not because his government doesn’t have achievements, because it does. Indeed, he has been the victim of the simple churlishness of Irish voters who are willing to blame a government for every economic setback, but rarely give them any credit for creating an environment for economic progress. But then, get a vague Taoiseach, get vague voters.
If there is one lesson Coveney and Varadkar should heed, it’s the importance of being able to communicate a clear metric of what success looks like. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition actually did the opposite, running on a platform of opposition to many of the measures such as water charges and property taxes that they would actually be forced to implement. More importantly, they knew well before polling day that they’d have no choice given the state of the public finances.
But by 2016, the metric to measure them was what they said in 2011 and what they had lied about. What seemed like clever in 2011 to Labour nearly destroyed them as a party in 2016, with the spectacle of Labour activists cringing at the media actually using their own 2011 appearances against them.
It’s not good enough to spew guff about “tackling” the A&E or housing crisis. It’s about either man being able to stand alone in a room with a blank flip chart and a felt tip pen and write out the three or four specific objectives they will have pledged to deliver by the end of this Dail in 2021.
How long should a person reasonably have to wait in A&E before an actual doctor is treating them?
What is the reasonable percentage of gross income someone in Dublin should expect to pay in rent for a two bedroom flat?
There’s a whole raft of questions like those above, but here’s the thing. If either man looks at either of those questions and says “How the hell am I supposed to know?”, then I’d suggest they ring the other guy and tell him they’re withdrawing. They’re two simple questions about ordinary life, and if a prospective Taoiseach can’t either see that, or doesn’t want to answer them, or simply don’t think about things like that, they’re not the man for the job.
We have had, in Enda Kenny, and I’d suggest Brian Cowen too, Taoisigh who came into the job because it was the next rung on the ladder. Is there anyone who really believes either man came back from the park having met the president and rubbed their hands thinking “Finally! A chance to do something on policy X!” Noel Browne came into office determined to do bloody war upon tuberculosis. Labour in 1992 came in and immediately launched a swathe of liberal reforms, leaving a legacy in 1997 of the single most socially liberalising government in the history of the state. Dev from 1932, cumulating in a new constitution in 1937, had a plan.
In 1979 Ted Kennedy famously damaged his campaign for president by being unable to answer why he wanted to be president.
Simon and Leo have a question to answer: why do you want power?
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
As a columnist, giving out yards about the state of the country is pretty much bread and butter. But I’ve always tried, if not succeeded, to convey that my frustration with this country is not from anger with it, but the fact that it is so tantalisingly close to moving from being a great country to a world leader.
It’s from that perspective that I get irritated when I see, and it’s pretty common in Ireland, someone launch a tirade about what an awful place this country is. You’ve heard it yourself. They’ll start with homelessness, or health waiting lists, or mental health services, or any number of legitimate areas of dissatisfaction. But that will be a launch pad into how we have no health service, no welfare system, no housing, how the country is run by the banks and how austerity has left us in a third world country. How we have no democratic choices and how the Gardai are fascist boot-boys and how the media is run by Ireland’s version of C. Montgomery Burns.
Except they get to say all this freely. And secret police don’t kick in their doors, or shut down the Socialist Worker. And they do win seats in the national parliament and draw very nice salaries.
See, that’s the frustrating bit. This country has its flaws in its public services yet our health service provides cheap and efficient care for millions. The great majority of our people are housed pretty well. Hunger is less of a problem than obesity. Our old people get good pensions.
Say what you will about Enda and Micheal and the rest, because you can. Unlike in Turkey or Russia. In Russia journalists investigating crime and corruption get murdered. Know what happens when a crime journalist gets murdered here? As it happens, we do know. The state, our state, mobilised to defend freedom of speech and brought its boot down not on the free press but those who threatened violence against it. Give abuse to our politicians and they might abuse you back, but they won’t send thugs around, even the ones who used to justify murdering political opponents.
But if you really want to know what a great country this is, ask someone who lives and works here but isn’t an EU citizen. Ask them would they like an Irish passport, and they’ll tell you it is a treasured document.
This isn’t all an accident. We’ve made mistakes, and lacked ambition for ourselves, especially with our natural resources, but this has been, since the end of the civil war, one of the most free nations on Earth. As the Trumps and Wilders and Le Pens and Erdogans and Putins become the norm, our little island may well be one of the few tiny specks of light in the coming darkness.
There’s a potential for us, to be Singapore on the Atlantic, but with, you know, a proper democracy. A small well-run place where crazy people are kept away from power. Where Enda and the rest, for all they do that gets up our nose, aren’t Trumpolini. Ourselves, Canada and New Zealand have the chance to be a haven for Americans and others. For a fee, of course. We can’t let everybody in.
But we have a clean, stable, English speaking country with socialised medicine, strict gun control, no death penalty, same-sex marriage, public broadcasting standards, a restriction on paid political advertising on TV and fair elections. We’ve even got an American in the cabinet, and they’ll just love Michael D with the poetry and the Castro. Yeah, the abortion thing might annoy them but given what the Republicans are planning to do with abortion it’s not impossible we end up becoming a pro-choice country just as the US buys a second-hand 8th amendment.
As President Trump starts pulling back on foreign direct investment by US companies, we might find ourselves scrambling for some other strategy.
I think I might have it. You know that ad the National Lottery are currently running about the guy who wins the lottery and buys an island which he gives to Ireland? The first time I saw it, I thought it was just silly and not a little bit colonialist. But then it struck me. If Ireland remains one of the few countries in the world not run by a variation of either Nazis or good old fashioned eejits (I’m looking at you, Venezuela), we could be a refuge for moderate rich liberals who want either to ride out the storm o’crazy or even retire. But the weather isn’t great here, and it’s a serious problem for all those Californian liberals.
But what if the state did buy an island somewhere nice? Owned by the state, operated by the state, and served by Aer Lingus. We could extend our non-crazy jurisdiction to the island, and still tax those liberal refugees. We could stick a few guards and soldiers on it, use rotation to the island for six months as a sweetener in the public sector talks, and here’s the best bit.
It would become a holiday destination for the Irish. Good weather but also somewhere you could still see “Fair City”, get proper chips and Brennans sliced pan. We’d keep the holiday spending in the extended country’s economy.
Of course, we’d have to do something about the duty free and the price of a pint. As for who we’d appoint governor…
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition:
Every once in a while a myth emerges that Ireland could be the Saudi Arabia of either natural gas or fish if it hadn’t been for the dastardly EU or multinationals robbing our natural resources. It’s a very comfortable myth that fits meets with all the criteria of a good Irish tale of suffering and woe.
Firstly, it’s about the simple decent Irish being tricked out of something by more clever foreigners, once again left standing on the side of the market road with a bag of beans as some rapscallion legs it with our prize heifer. Secondly, the prize is always something magical that could have solved all our problems if only we had a chance to benefit from it. Thirdly, it fits in with our bizarre national pride in being the fabled Most Oppressed People Ever, a country with an almost masochistic pleasure in being done in once again. As if our national symbol shouldn’t be a harp but a “Pulp Fiction” style leather gimp mask.
It’s a load of nonsense. It’s true, we do let other countries take out vast amount of fish from our waters. But the question I always ask is what were we doing with those fish before we joined the EEC in 1973? Bear in mind the Norwegian people turned down EEC membership in the same year because they had exploited their resources and felt they didn’t need to join. Were we a fishing superpower, exploiting our natural resources before the evil continentals came and stole our golden goose?
No, we weren’t. In our 50 years of independence from 1922 until we joined the EEC in 1973 we did feck all with our much ballyhooed natural resources. We had no Brits to bully us, no European Commission to set down fishing quotas. We had just us and near total national sovereignty. We were masters of our own domain.
Did we build our own super trawlers and factory ships and conquer foreign markets with good Irish fish? Did we create hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs as a result, stemming the flow of emigration that blighted our land for a century and more?
No. We did little, but started complaining once someone else did something with them, even though we benefitted both directly and indirectly, as did they.
And, by the way: you know all that complaining we do about Spanish trawlers? We were in the EEC before Spain was. We were on the team negotiating with Spain on them joining, so we can hardly complain that Spain got too good a deal.
With Spain in 1985, as with us joining in 1972, we did a cost benefit analysis. What was in our overall interest? Would we lose fish to others? Yes. Would we gain in other areas by joining the EEC and not blocking Spain, as we could have? Yes. We took a conscious decision that hurting our fishermen, and we did hurt them, was in the long run of benefit to the common good for the majority, and we were right. This country, and the people in it, are far richer than in was in 1972 when we had complete control over our fisheries. We had far more farmers than fishermen and they benefitted from access to European markets, standards and the Common Agricultural Policy.
The fact that we chose not to share more of that new wealth with those fishing communities was not a decision made in Brussels, but in the Dail. National sovereignty in action.
In recent years, it’s becoming fashionable to talk once again about national sovereignty as if it is some newly discovered concept. As if suddenly just ignoring the EU or globalisation is some sort of Make Ireland Great Again switch that we could just press if the people we keep electing in free elections weren’t all traitors and sell-outs.
Yet national sovereignty itself is a compromise between symbolism and the power to shape a nation’s destiny. North Korea has much more national sovereignty than South Korea, for example. The south is tied into defence and trade alliances with the US and Japan, whereas North Korea barely listens to China, if anyone. Yet in the south they ponder buying the new Samsung or an iPhone, whereas in the north the big debate for many is whether there’s enough tree bark to go around for supper. Which people have more real sovereignty, that is, control over their actual lives?
The debate to be had isn’t about national sovereignty, but a dangerous growing tendency in electorates across the west to not liking choices. It’s hardly suprising: the post-1945 welfare state was fuelled by levels of growth and borrowing that made choices easy. But there are no easy choices left.
Look at the hand-wringing on-line over the horrific scenes coming out of Aleppo, and Europeans demanding their governments do something. In the same breath, many of the same people oppose Europe acquiring a serious military capability, or the consequences of taking in refugees, or creating some vast EU funded safe-zone somewhere.
But this is the challenge for the new generation of those seeking office. To confront the people who elected them and tell them that phrases like national sovereignty are meaningless. That modern life is about choices, often choosing the least worst of them.
The politician who figures out how to communicate that and still get elected will rule the world.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Amidst all the nonsense and hysteria of the most recent US election, Barack Obama gave an interview to Wired magazine where he talked about the impact of driverless vehicles. On the one hand, he suggested that driver error was the single greatest cause of fatalities on US roads, and that driverless vehicles would significantly reduce that. On the other hand, he pointed out that three million Americans earned a living driving everything from trucks to school-buses to taxis.
It was classic Obama. Slightly wonky, calm, measured, thoughtful. A rational discussion about future challenges and opportunities. Just wait and see how lucky we’ll all realise we were to have him as president of the United States when the next guy is sworn in.
But it made me think: are Irish politicians giving any thought to the future? Given the occasional hysteria about technology, especially in the Seanad which seems to regard anything beyond a flip-phone as high-falutin’, one would have one’s doubts.
I had a discussion with some work colleagues recently where I was a dismissed as a Cassandra for worrying about automation in the workplace and its effect on employment. It made me realise that you can’t blame Irish politicians for reflecting their voters’ concerns, or lack of. But don’t we pay these guys to be looking over the hill at what is coming next?
Consider this: Andrew Puzder, President-Elect Trump’s nominee as Labour secretary, the man tasked with managing employment rights in the US has as a fast food CEO openly speculated about replacing his staff with automated systems. Apparently robots won’t call in sick or strike or sue him for discrimination. This is real.
Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at the shifting balance between staff operating a till and the automated tills where you serve yourself. Remember when those tills were introduced for convenience? To avoid queuing behind that person in front of you who on reaching the till always seemed either startled by the concept of a paper-based money system or indeed that they had to pay at all? Now we queue to serve ourselves as the number of human servers dwindles.
Remember when every bus had a conductor? Is there anyone willing to say 100% that there’ll be no automation of the Luas? Ludicrous, they will say. Sure you can’t have a driverless train given how mad Dublin drivers are. But that’s not how it will happen. What will happen is that the trains will be automated but the drivers kept initially to “supervise”, allowing the company to gradually reduce numbers by natural wastage. Then we’ll all discover that the Luas has actually been automated for years. If you have been to Disneyland or through many major airports you’ve already been on an automated train.
The question for Irish (and every other western) society is how do we deal with the employment implications? Automation will push down labour costs as more people accept less wages for fewer jobs, until automation gets even cheaper. But in many instances jobs will be actually destroyed. The old argument about creative destruction still holds to a certain degree. Many former blacksmiths ended up building the cars that destroyed their old trades. But now those jobs are being replaced by robots in car factories. Some of the old car workers may well become engineers who design or build the robots, until robots start building and designing themselves. But at every stage the sheer volume of people needed to upskill to the next level gets less and less. That’s the point: it’s cheaper to make do with fewer but more highly skilled people.
That’s the challenge: not everybody can be a software engineer, and what do we do when the jobs beneath simply don’t exist in the same numbers? When a supermarket late shift has maybe two or three very modestly paid teenagers supervising 30 robots repacking shelves? There will of course be jobs that humans might be better at, such as senior care which we know will be a growth industry given western demographics, but lower paid repetitive jobs are ripe for technological obliteration. There may not be, quite simply, enough decent paying jobs to go around.
If the Dail is not thinking about this, then who is? Who should be planning for a future where labour exceeds demand, and where many of those with even with jobs barely exist on low wages? Is a universal basic income the answer? Is technology restriction? Is an expansion of public sector employment? Should we bring back jobs like bus conductors not because it will make buses more efficient, but to simply give people the dignity of work? Will we pay people to actually be artists and playwrights? How will we pay for it all?
We often look upon Ireland as a permanent victim nation, constantly battered by the decisions of greater nations or global forces. But we also have an advantage we rarely speak of: as a small nation we can change direction fast. From eradicating tuberculosis to switching to the euro, this country can do something fast if it wants to. But we have to have the vision. How do we start?
Perhaps it’s time for some of the younger members of the Oireachtas to put together an Oireachtas committee on the future, with a clear brief to bring in those looking at the problems of the future, from technology to senior care to employment to pensions.
Let’s at least begin the debate.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 21, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
I’ve always been a science fiction fan. Not one of those “a thousand years in the future” types, but more of the shape of things to come in twenty or thirty years. As a result, I was always fascinated by dystopian movies like “The Children of Men” or “Escape from New York”, both of which take place, respectively, in a still recognizable Britain or US not too far in the future. In “Escape from New York”, the United States is ruled by a far-right president wreaking violence upon those who do not conform to his definition of traditional American (read Christian) values. The same applies to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, where the American establishment is toppled by misogynistic white male extremists who believe women should be second class citizens. It was the question of how we got from here to there which intrigued me.
This week, the voters of the United States will answer that question. How the richest, most progressive, most powerful nation in human history totters on the brink of very possibly sweeping that all away by electing a North American Peron. Never will the phrase “We’re ready to call Florida” induce so much stomach tightening terror as it will on Tuesday night.
Here in Ireland we can do very little about it. It’s America’s world, and we have to live in it, because the alternative is China’s world or Russia’s Europe. Funnily enough, it occurred to me during the week that the US could have made a fortune if it did let, for a handsome fee, foreigners elect two or three members of the electoral college, because we seem to appreciate how much more important it is than at least one in four Americans who won’t bother to vote. I suspect the whole adult population of Estonia would turn out to vote if they could.
There’s nothing we can do but learn our lessons. Trump is just the latest manifestation of a destructive hateful force sweeping across the world, from Farage to Putin to Le Pen to Geert Wilders. Hate is in. Just look at the UK this week, where UK judges who ruled that parliament is sovereign were demonised by newspapers that had only campaigned on that very subject back in June. Foreigners in the UK are keeping their heads, and voices down, for fear of attack. It’s not that racism has suddenly exploded in the UK after the Brexit vote any more than it has in the US or elsewhere, it’s that it has become socially more acceptable. The racists now believe that they speak for the silent majority, which is pretty much the line the Trumpistas take too.
As for Ireland? Could we see a rise in demagoguery? We certainly have no shortage of populists, but it is striking, indeed curious, that the race card has never really taken root here. There have been attempts to suggest that the citizenship referendum was some sort of indicator, but even the alphabet left don’t buy that. Know how I know? There’s no Repeal the Citizenship Amendment movement from them or anyone else.
It’s not that we don’t have racists in our society, but they seem to be trapped on the crazy fringe, always two sentences away from talking about bloodlines and “protecting our culture”. The sort of people who say “I’m completely against racism…against white people!” and think it’s a real rabbit out of the hat moment.
The scary thing about the race issue is that once it takes hold in a society, it’s impervious to facts. UKIP voters nearly always overestimate what percentage of the UK population is Muslim, non-white, or not born in the UK. But as Trump has proven, facts don’t matter to those voters.
A clear barrier to an Irish Trump would be the fact that Irish politics is personality centric. Who could be our Trump anyway? The only politician of recent years who had the sort of popular appeal of Donald Trump was Bertie, and he never showed any desire, to his credit, to divide people. But supposing an Evil Bertie did come along, a man of the people who whipped up fear about Muslims and black faces and “we need to look after our own people first” and all the rest. Who played the same well tested card about who is getting all the housing? Who is being let into the country? Why aren’t the refugees going to Muslim countries?
The other barrier to an Irish Trump is that geography nearly always beats ideology. An Irish Trump could be agreed with one hundred percent on the doors, but they then vote for the other guy because he “got the 46A stop moved for me granny”.
An Irish Trump would need to be a clear communicator, but not too polished. Ideally from a rural background, with a bit of GAA in their history but comfortable at a soccer match. Not an ideologue, because that’s where they always fail, thinking that being anti-immigrant means they have to be anti-gay and pro-life too. The assassinated Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn figured that one out years ago, recognising that voters aren’t ideologically strait-jacketed but like their views a la carte.
We think we wouldn’t be foolish enough to vote for an Irish Trump. But people forget: before Hitler there was no Hitler to warn us. As the line goes: the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 18th July 2016.
Writing on social media last week about the Nice attack, the conservative commentator John McGuirk remarked that “at some point soon, people are going to say “you know, we tried the nice way. We tried tolerance. We tried being understanding. Maybe it’s time to give the crazy guy a shot at it.”
It’s hard to dispute the logic of his argument, given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months. From Trump to Brexit, we are witnessing what some are calling “post-truth” politics but what I prefer to term The Right To One’s Own Facts. The most disturbing aspect of the Brexit debate for me was the willingness of voters particularly but not exclusively on the leave side to casually dismiss facts which did not fit with their worldview.
But what should really alarm us is that there now seems to be substantial numbers of voters who choose to vote recklessly on the basis that “sure, it can’t get any worse, can it?” There are literally millions of people voting for Trumps, Farages and Erdogans. It can always get worse.
In 1979 the trades unions brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government because they thought he was too right-wing. Think they were still applauding themselves for that act after ten years of Mrs Thatcher? Reckless voters keep thinking that they can’t break the system, even when they pretend they want to.
But they do want to break it, some say. Why shouldn’t they? They’re disengaged. Except they’re not. They are completely engaged by other taxpayers through the state. It often provides their dole, their healthcare, their housing, their kids’ education, all funded by the taxes of voters whom they themselves seem to hold in contempt for being “an elite”.
The welfare state isn’t some form of natural fiscal phenomenon. It’s a decision by voters collectively to provide what is, in many instances, a form of nationalised charity. Sure, get insulted all you want at that definition, and talk about entitlements and rights, but bear in mind that whilst all of us, in every class, cannot avoid paying some tax, even if it is just VAT, some pay far more into the pot than they draw out, and others vice versa. You know where the poor are disengaged properly? Venezuela. When you can’t even find toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Disengagement? That’s abandonment by the state, and it isn’t happening here.
The other awkward reality about reckless voters is their contribution to the rise of the hard anti-immigrant right in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What do these countries all have in common? How about, in one study after another, they collectively have the highest standards of living as nations in the world, which actually means in human history. So what’s their gripe? How disengaged are they? Is their broadband speed letting them down? Not getting enough time to play Pokemon?
What unifies Trump voters, Brexit voters, far right and far left voters? For some it is simple racism. We seem to believe that racism is no longer possible, but is merely a symptom of some other underlying cause. But guess what? Some people just don’t like people who are a different colour or creed. It doesn’t matter why, we just have to ignore them because their opinions are irrational and listening to them about the direction of society is like listening to Jimmy Saville about child protection protocols.
But I would suggest that the racists are a minority, and the real motivating factor for many of these voters is the speed of change, and that’s a big problem. Yes, immigration transforms societies, but so does technology. The speed of transport has sped up immigration, but it has also sped up shipping times from the cheaper labour less employment rights factories of China and thus made off-shoring jobs much more viable. How do you stop that?
The Trumps and the Le Pens can stop immigration, and erect walls, both physically and tariff. But they can only alter the speed of change by actually withdrawing their respective countries from the globalized economy, which has all sorts of consequences from labour shortages to the price of food in the shops.
For me, the greatest reason why we should ignore reckless voters is their belief that complexity can be removed. That “take back control” or “just send them all home” is an actual solution. This is using a match to see if there is any petrol left in the drum stuff, and it must be opposed.
Of course, all that assumes that a majority of voters will vote in a non-reckless way, and that, in the age of Trump, is a hell of an assumption to make. Just look at the Erdogan of Turkey.
In 1932, in Germany, 52% of voters voted for either the Nazi party or the Communist party. Many of those same voters would have to wait for 17 years for another free election, and only after their country lay literally in ruins and under occupation.
It is very possible for voters in a democracy to vote to abolish themselves. Reckless voters have a right to be heard. But they don’t have a right to grab control of the wheel of the bus and take us all down with them. Nor are we obliged to let them.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Over dinner recently with one of the thinkers of the Irish free market right (alright, it was Cormac Lucey) the subject turned to the prospects of a genuinely pro-free market party.
I’m sceptical. After all, Renua with its flat tax proposals made a pitch for the low-tax voter, and crashed faster than a moderate Republican presidential candidate.
Why didn’t it work? Here was a party with a talented party leader in Lucinda Creighton, a parliamentary base with three outgoing TDs, and a clear pitch. All three lost their seats. Did it confirm that there is simply no significant free market vote in Ireland?
Not quite. Renua was tarred from the very start with the whole pro-life thing, given the reasons why Lucinda and the others left Fine Gael. On top of that, unlike the US and UK, it’s not absolutely vital for broad church coalitions to exist in Irish parties. Large numbers of pro-low tax voters are also pro-choice voters, and were repelled by the perception that Renua was the parliamentary wing of the John Charles McQuaid Sub-Committee for the Saving of Souls.
But it’s not just that free market voters were happy with the establishment parties. Nor, by the way, is it true, as many claim, that Irish voters aren’t ideological. The fact that we have never elected a socialist or social democrat-led government isn’t an accident. This is a small c conservative country with a suspicion of economic change and a murderous Bull McCabe obsession with the right to private property.
The Irish are ideological, but won’t admit it. Everybody claims to be middle of the road or liberal. Liberal being shorthand for “fairness”, and fairness being shorthand for “spend money on things I want”. Few people openly identify as conservative in an ideological sense, and being called right-wing is regarded as an insult. Yet, especially in our attitudes to property (where’s my shotgun?), taxes (for other people) and regulation (also for other people) large numbers of Irish people could easily find themselves in the non-Praise Jesus! wing of the US Republican Party. We just won’t admit it.
It begs a question: if there is a classic right-wing vote out there, why isn’t in translated into openly right-wing votes on polling day? Yes, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are centre-right and still dominate Irish politics. But the answer is in the description: centre-right. Both parties, with their centrist tendencies, are firmly anchored to the “there’s a few quid for yourself” approach to public spending to grease the wheels of popularity. But why aren’t economically right-wing voters voting for right-wing candidates?
The answer to that, I suspect, is that in Ireland geography trumps ideology. Our electoral system is primarily geographically based, and those voters who vote with a free market bias are essentially diluted by the greater majority of voters who cast their first preferences For The Area. It’s why Fine Gael can get working class votes and why Richard Boyd Barrett picks up first preferences from the yachting crowd in Dun Laoghaire. It’s all about the area, and in the area, it’s all about delivery. Banging on about the flat tax on the doorstep just doesn’t compete with getting the stop for the 46A moved closer to your granny’s house because her knee is giving her terrible gip. The 46A is real: the flat tax is a graph. It’s not that most voters aren’t interested, or don’t understand. It just doesn’t compete compared to getting that Aldi stopped or getting a grant for the local GAA’s roof. Let someone else worry about the flat taxes: we’re worried about the flat roof.
But here’s a thought. Supposing you got small businessmen from all over the country into a room. Or farmers. Or trades unionists. Yes, they’d still talk about local experiences, but surely the talk would turn to the big national issues that affect business or farmers? They will discuss the flat tax and public spending and The Big Picture, because in that format, it’s the national issues which are the common factor, as opposed to geography.
This is relevant because last week the Seanad passed the second stage of the reform bill to allow every citizen a vote on one of the vocational panels. Every citizen will have a right to vote in a national Seanad constituency representing, broadly speaking, business, labour, agricultural, cultural or administrative interests. In other words, the aforementioned businessmen in a room get to elect their senators.
In such a scenario, where geographical interests are lessened (never abolished. This is Ireland) it’s not impossible to imagine a party like New Zealand’s Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT-NZ) being formed just to contest for two or three seats on the industrial and commercial panel. Same with a Rural or Farmers Party on the agricultural panel. Or a Young People’s Party on the educational and cultural panel.
Indeed, a new Seanad crammed full of senators elected by interest groups across the land could soon draw media attention away from the Dail.
It’s not impossible that a new Seanad could end up debating the real meat of national issues, with senators aware that their electors live in every parish, united by issue and interest as opposed to place.
Still, that would leave the Dail to provide the vegetables.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 20, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
On my desk, as I’m writing this column, is a small EU flag on a stand. It’s typical of the overpriced tat on sale on and around the tourist devouring gravitational black hole that is the Grand Place in Brussels. No self-respecting EU official would waste their money on rubbish like this. And yet I spent mine, and it sits on my desk, meaning something to me, a symbol of an almost lifetime of belief in not just European integration but an actual United States of Europe. It’s that belief which is what makes this particular column so hard to write.
Last week there was a debate about the European Commission insisting that the Irish government had no choice as to whether to levy a water charge or not. That it was EU law, that our derogation was over, that was that. Now, as it happens, I believe in water charges. Clean, safe water is a precious commodity that costs money to deliver to our homes, and should be treated as such, and that means putting a value on it. People respect something far more when they have to pay for it.
But a question niggled in the back of my mind. Why is it Brussels’ concern whether we charge for water or not? We signed up for the water framework directive, but the bigger question is why does our system of water supply funding matter to Brussels at all?
Defenders of the directive will say, quite fairly, that if you sign up to something you should carry it out. They also raise the question of why we sign up to some of this stuff in the first place. These decisions are not forced on us by Brussels but by our own national ministers agreeing, and our national parliament not holding them to account before they do so, as say, the Danish parliament does. Indeed, Danish ministers often have to brief their parliament before they go to Brussels, and receive instructions.
It also raises the question, which seems to be regarded as heresy in Brussels, as to whether a member state can change its mind about a directive or regulation and go back to the council and say “you know what, this isn’t working. Let’s get rid of it.”
But the water directive is indicative of something much bigger, and much more troubling. The truth is, we now have a situation where Brussels has direct involvement in the finances of the member states, actually telling us what we can and can’t do with our own money.
Now let me be clear, less some eurosceptic reads this as a Damascene conversion to euroscepticism: I get why we do it. We do it because the euro, our common currency, can only work if its participant nations operate on the basis of sound finances. But that’s the problem: in order for that to happen, we have to go the full federal route, with an economic policy decided in Brussels. The problem is that there is no support for that in Europe, and so we end up, pardon the awful pun, stuck in the middle with EU.
I believe in the euro. I don’t buy the argument that the euro caused our property bubble. The fact that we complain now about the Central Bank restricting lending shows that we had the power to restrict the availability of cheap money during the Tiger years but chose not to use it.
I support a common currency because it makes a political union wealthier. Is there anyone who thinks the US would be the world’s preeminent power if it had 50 competing currencies?
But our problem is that we’re not willing to go the full route, to a central economic policy and a central treasury with Eurobonds. Without it, the euro becomes a convenient demon, for UKIP or AfD in Germany or the Five Star Movement in Italy to easily blame for problems and even failures of national policy. In short, it becomes a weapon to use against the EU itself.
The euro has made countries share power with each other, making German prosperity reliant on Greek finances, but has not given anyone enough power to actually complete the job. If a federal government in Brussels actually collected Greek taxes, and returned a block grant to the Greek government, we’d all probably be better off, including the Greeks. But that’s not on the table, and trying to put it, or something like it, on the table will almost certainly break up the EU.
The euro is becoming a scapegoat for nationalist populists to blame, either directly, as in Italy, or indirectly, as in Ireland with our fiscal treaty obligations to balance our books.
I voted for both the Maastricht criteria and the Fiscal Treaty because I wanted to restrict the ability of Irish politicians to recklessly abuse the national finances. But instead we have created an unforeseen consequence, where rather than forcing national politicians to be honest about tax and spending, we have given them a faceless stooge to blame.
Should we break up the euro? The consequences of such an act, and the devaluation wars it would set off, are horrific to contemplate. So I honestly say I don’t know.
But I’ll tell you one thing: if the belief that it is some unaccountable thing in Brussels which is making you pay for water or queue for hours in A&E is permitted to grow, it will eventually destroy not just the euro but the European Union itself.