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.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 15, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
If one wanted to begin the process of creating an Irish Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, one could start by adjusting a single newspaper headline.
Last week there was much on-air and online preening about how proud we were of the Irish Naval Service. The L.É. James Joyce had just returned from the Mediterranean where it had pulled nearly 2,500 people from the sea, and headlines announced the news with a hint of national self-applause.
But what if the headlines had continued to say something like “and ferried them onto Ireland to be housed.”
Imagine the popular response.
“Now, Joe, I’m not a racialist, but…our own people first, Joe…”
The naval service has a right to feel proud for doing a professional job. But let’s be clear: we as a country then hand the refugees over to the Italians and make it their problem, literally sailing off into the sunset feeling good about ourselves having done what is essentially the easy bit.
The standard alphabet left response is that we should take in every refugee who presents themselves. But even the alphabet left, far more committed to staying on the populist side of every argument than socialist principles of humanitarianism, don’t make a whole lot of noise about it. Some rending of garments, and then it’s back to the more comfortable territory of demanding free stuff paid by people with twirly moustaches and top hats.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, called last week for the creation of an EU city in North Africa to house refugees. Orban has taken, at times, a populist line against refugees, including moving a referendum on the EU’s refugee resettlement policies which he will almost certainly win.
I’m not a fan of Orban, but I’ll tell you two things about him. One, he’s not the most right wing leader in Hungary. That would be the third largest party, Jobbik, an outfit that likes uniformed marches and casually talks about drawing up lists of Jews. Secondly, despite the nasty yahoos to his right, he remains popular in the country, with his Fidesz party regularly polling in the mid-40s. There aren’t many sitting European leaders who can claim that.
That’s not to defend him. But it does raise the awkward fact across Europe that whilst we may want to help the refugees, and we do, large and growing numbers of Europeans don’t want the refugees in Europe, at least not in current numbers. Moreover, in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Hungary populist anti-immigrant parties are winning millions of voters.
Europe’s leaders are caught between a continent and a sea of human misery.
In that context, the Orban suggestion should be looked at. Not a Tony Abbott style offshore prison where people can be dumped and forgotten, but a far more ambitious project.
We should build a little piece of Europe in North Africa. Not a vast camp of tents, but a city where refugees can not only be safe but build a life. It’ll mean building schools and hospitals and roads and marketplaces, and deploying thousands of European soldiers and doctors and engineers and teachers. It won’t be cheap. It’ll probably need a bond for billions raised by the ECB, and be part of the customs union and the eurozone.
But picture the outcome. First, a place actually geared up to shelter the thousands fleeing. Secondly, a clear response from Europe: do not try to enter our continent illegally. You will be brought to the safe zone. You can leave anytime you want. But you can’t go to Europe without our consent.
Let me stress: this won’t end immigration, nor should it. Such a place would allow us to gradually process those who wish to live in Europe, but on our terms. The children there would be educated as European children, working towards becoming European citizens, learning European values, and studying in European universities. The eventual goal would be perhaps a new Beirut as it used to be, a bustling place of business and trade, a gateway between Europe and its neighbours, where businesspeople and students and even tourists legally travel to Europe and live in Europe but feel at ease going back and forth.
And those refugees who don’t want their children sitting with Christian or Muslim boys or girls? Or deny the Holocaust? Or insist on the burka? There’s the gate. Keep walking. You wouldn’t like Europe anyway. Sure it’s full of Jews and gays and strong women.
It’ll need to be run by someone with administrative experience, is pragmatic and middle of the road, a good European, and knows about divided communities. I can think of a chap who drinks in Fagans who might be up to the task. Or that posh English mate he used to knock around with.
A fantasy? Perhaps. But so was Brexit, ending apartheid, the Berlin wall falling, a black president in the White House, Trump. We live in times of breakneck change.
We keep demanding that “the EU” do something about refugees. There is no EU, only EU member states. Individually, EU states can’t solve the problem, and may destroy themselves politically trying, as Angela Merkel has discovered despite her enormous courage.
The Orban proposal is a European response to a European-wide problem. It deserves serious consideration.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Here’s a little mental exercise to while away the coming dark winter nights. Try, if you can, to work out watch percentage of Irish political activity is guff. By guff, of course, I use the scientific measurement of political activity engaged upon to given the impression of activity for its own sake. In other words, a political activity which, if it did not occur at all, would have no discernible effect upon anyone not engaged in the production of guff in the first place.
Now, it’s not unique to Irish politics. Every democratic form of government has its own form of shape throwing. But what is telling about the Irish political system is that our entire political infrastructure, being based upon the British parliamentary model, is almost handcrafted for empty political symbolism. Just consider the fact that this Dail is the most fluid Dail since the great “Put Them Out!” Dail of 1948 where a five party coalition crowbarred DeValera out of office faster than he could you could say “Arriba!” The government has no majority, and is genuinely at the whim of the house. Individual TDs are at their most powerful in a generation. Is the Dail inundated with private members bills being patiently shepherded through the house? Actually, there are quite a few, on everything from the appointment of the Garda Commissioner to creating a new Republic Day bank holiday. But broadly speaking, the Dail isn’t for getting things done. It’s for empathising with voters, or at least looking like you do.
The Dail and Seanad are supposedly the great forum of the nation, where we as a people debate and tease out the great issues. Abortion. Neutrality. Immigration.
Except we don’t, because that’s not how we do things as a country. We don’t have public discourse. Indeed, if anything, we oppose it. Irish politicians still say that the greatest reason to avoid an issue is that it would be “divisive”, as if that’s the worst possible thing one could ever experience.
The problem is that almost anything worth doing is divisive. Storming the GPO was divisive. Rosa Parks refusing to do what the bus driver told her to do was divisive. Refusing to accept the drowning of women as a system of supernatural investigation and legal administration as anything but moronic was divisive.
In 1922 we kept the vast tract of the British legal and parliamentary system because it a) works and b) it’s what we thought what a grown up political system looks like. The problem was that it was designed for the British temperament and British culture, and not the way we actually think as a country.
For a start, we don’t like voicing our real opinions in public. There isn’t an AGM in anything from the GAA to the National Knitting Appreciation Society where actual decisions are made on the floor. It’s all stitched up beforehand, in the case of the knitters, literally. We don’t debate in the forum. We mutter in the pub corner.
From Dail chambers to county councils, the louder the debate, the less likely it’s about something that matters to that body in reality. TDs wax lyrical about potholes in their constituencies, whilst county councillors talk about the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Then there’s the decision making process. Just look at the councils this week, debating setting the Local Property Tax. Marvel as councillors who mere days ago would have broken down in tears at the anguish of spending limitations now fit themselves with beautifully handcrafted brass necks and take to their feet to demand the maximum 15% cut in LPT and the revenue it raises to fund previously mentioned public services.
How do they get away with it? Again, blame the British model, where every individual councillor can blame every other councillor for their decision and thus nobody is responsible. How many people know which parties actually control their county council? The national symbol is the harp. It should actually be a ball of smoke bracketed on each side by a mirror.
The funny thing is that our culture and history provides the solution. Back in the day before Strongbow decided to enter the private military contractor business, we had local chiefs who made the local call, and whom everybody knew made the local call. Indeed, in the Michael Lowrys and the Healy-Raes we still have that cultural hangover, the local big man fixer. What causes such frustration with our political system is that it doesn’t reflect our own political culture.
What would it look like? Directly elected executive office holders, essentially. Local mayors, local ombudsmen, maybe even a directly elected Taoiseach. People who are elected not to lobby or influence or urge, but people who actually have the budget and the power to make decisions.
There’s a whole tranche of Irish politicians who would go cold at the idea, of course. The sort of candidates who see politics essentially as a form of interpretative dance as opposed to actually making finite decisions from a list of infinite choices. Nothing new there.
At its heart, we still have not expelled Dublin Castle from our political culture. We have men (mostly) drawing down ministerial salaries and pension entitlements yet “calling” for things as if someone else is in charge up there in the big castle.
Say one thing for the Big Chief model: he couldn’t say he wasn’t in charge.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
In deciding last week to scrap its support for water charges, and possibly unbeknownst even to itself, Fianna Fail took an important philosophical decision. The party decided to press its collective nose against that window Dev had installed to look into the soul of the Irish people, and adopt yet another position on water.
This is Fianna Fail’s fourth position on water charges. In government, the party went from being opposed to them, to agreeing to bring them as part of the Troika deal. It then went to that old reliable default of Irish politics from abortion to neutrality to Seanad reform of being in favour of something in theory but wobbly on actual practice. It now says it believes water should be funded from general taxation, the position it held before the Troika strong-armed the party into actually reading some spreadsheets.
What’s particularly interesting is Fianna Fail’s realisation that the water charge is a fine example of how transparency not only doesn’t work in Ireland, but actually undermines confidence in the political system. The Irish people have always paid for water. Our water system isn’t run by some sort of vocation of volunteer hydrological engineer nuns maintaining the nation’s water supply as a homage to God in his highest. It’s run by people who have to be paid, and that takes taxes.
Water charges attempted to show the public that this stuff costs money, and, through metering, put an actual value on it, showing Sean Citizen how much it really cost.
Sean Citizen didn’t like that, and so Fianna Fail have decided to go back to the old smoke and mirrors approach, pretending that the money we used to spend on water from general taxation was just let sit in a bucket marked water services, and not spent on some other public service.
We all know what happens next. The money will still have to be found, and so will be by stealth. A fiddle of PAYE allowances here, a moving of tax thresholds there. Sean Citizen will still pay, but he’ll be too distracted by Fianna Fail moving their egg cups around the table to hide where they’ve hidden their tax rise pea. He’ll walk away, his wallet lightened by the state, thinking he showed the government a thing or two. As a banner on the water protest last weekend said “Pay water taxes? We will, yeah!” Yeah. You will.
Funnily enough, I don’t blame Fianna Fail for deciding to go this route. It must surely be occurring to them that this whole transparency lark over the last few years, from water charges to public inquiries is in reality making us, as a country, less happy. From the Beef Tribunal forward, through the Golden Circle and the industrial schools and the planning tribunals you would think that by shining the sunlight into dark corners we would at least see a path to being a better country.
But ask Sean Citizen about political or Garda corruption, or waste of public funds, and he’ll tell you it is worse than it’s ever been, and believe it too. Well, it must be, it’s on the news.
That’s the irony: transparency has led to a better country. Children are better protected. Politics is cleaner. The Gardai are more accountable. But the public don’t believe it and yet if you ask them in detail they won’t be able to tell you why.
Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown’s focus group advisor made the point in her excellent book “Talking to a brick wall”, about how by nearly every statistical analysis the NHS under the Blair and Brown governments was better than before, yet the public just would not accept it. Under questioning, members of the public would recount their own favourable experiences with the NHS, and then dismiss it as a fluke.
It’s the same here: if the Gardai suddenly arrested a group of county councillors for corruption, what would be the default public position? “Look, we’re actually cracking down on corruption?” or “See, they’re all at it! I told you!”
It’s not unique to Ireland: there are still people who think Barack Obama either is trying or has succeeded in turning the United States into a Muslim socialist dictatorship. He isn’t and hasn’t, but why let that minor detail get in the way of voting for a world class spoofer next November?
Are Fianna Fail just recognising the reality in our post-factual political environment? Stop being honest with the voters, because they won’t believe you even when you tell them the truth and it makes them unhappy?
Water has to be paid for, and that means you have a choice. You can go the Venezuela route of never wanting to be unpopular and ending up with no toilet paper in the supermarkets. Or you can do Government-On-The-Sly, secretly slipping taxes from people’s pockets when they’re not looking.
To their credit, Fianna Fail realise that the country still needs to be run. The fact that their taxation policy comes from the Victorian street urchin Oliver Twist Book of Revenue Raising may well just be something we have to put up with. The state may indeed have to pick a pocket or two.