Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 
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Could Seanad reform be key to really new politics?

Posted by Jason O on Nov 6, 2016 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously 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.

 
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Is it time to break up the Euro?

Posted by Jason O on Oct 20, 2016 in European Union, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously 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.

 
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The awkward reality about the EU and refugees.

Posted by Jason O on Oct 15, 2016 in European Union, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously 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.

 
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An Irish model for an Irish people?

Posted by Jason O on Oct 7, 2016 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously 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.

 
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Does transparency actually make the Irish less happy?

Posted by Jason O on Oct 1, 2016 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously 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.

 
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European Army? Might as well ask for a unicorn whilst you’re at it.

Posted by Jason O on Sep 25, 2016 in European Union, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland edition

Twitter lit up last week, as it is wont to do, over the news that Hungary and the Czech Republic have called for a European army. Sorry, when I say Twitter, I don’t mean the 80% of Twitter that knows what a Kardashian is, nor the 18% that knows what a Cardassian is, but the 0.2% that worries about stuff like European defence. And that’s being generous.

For the political nerd and certain dog-whistling newspapers of the hard right in Britain, a European Army is a cross between the Loch Ness monster, a yeti, and a credible explanation as to what the hell the TV series “Lost” was actually about. It’s elusive, fascinating, and guaranteed to stir up heated debate on all sides of the argument. It allows our now departing British friends to put on a quite spectacular display of political schizophrenia, going from “Vote Leave because the rest of Europe wants a European army” to “See! Now we have left we can’t veto that crowd creating a European army! We told you!”

In other words, something for pretty much every voice inside the head of your average UKIP member.

From the Irish perspective, we get to do the usual “Down with war, up with peace” thing whilst ignoring the fact that if we hid any further behind NATO we’d all be living off the coast of San Diego. Not to worry: the last time we liberated a beach it was in Wexford for Steven Spielberg. The rest of Europe has never regarded us as one of the “we stand with you” nations. We’re more of a John Hurt in “The Field” operation, stealing ham from a sandwich and then protesting that we didn’t do anything. We don’t conquer other people, we don’t defend them. Nothing to do with us.   

Which is fine, there’s something in the European army debate for everyone as long as you accept the fact that discussing “Lost” is more likely to lead to a satisfactory conclusion than a European army debate ever will.

The Hungarians and Czechs were responding to an initiative by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative (the title refers to her status, by the way, not any state of narcotic substance use) to begin work on EU military structures. Now, if talks and initiatives about European defence actually counted as military capability, Europe would have the equivalent of a Death Star hovering over the Kremlin. But they don’t. The reality is that all Europe really does is talk about defence and design new logos for yet more defence bodies to talk about defence. But if a couple of thousand tonnes of Russian steel came lumbering over the Finnish or Estonian border, those European defence initiatives wouldn’t count for squat.

Well, maybe that is slightly unfair. The European Defence Agency does quietly work away on those technical things that matter, like research into drones and trying to get Europe some sort of coordinated air transport capability. But the actual shooting at Russians as they fight their way through the streets of Talinn? That’s NATO or to be honest, the Americans we’re relying on, which, whilst watching The Big Giant Loud Blonde Head running for the White House should really make us take this whole defence thing much more seriously.

The primary reason we won’t see a European army anytime soon is because nobody is really willing to die for Estonia, other than maybe Estonians and their near neighbours. Create and fund (there’s the tricky bit) a standalone volunteer European army, made up not of Irish or German soldiers but European soldiers who just happen to be Irish or German, and that might be a different story, but that isn’t going to happen any day soon. We can’t even get Europeans to agree on taxing companies we all say we want to tax.  

If you want to know why all this latest guff won’t lead to anything tangible, consider this:

There is currently in existence a detailed plan to create a European army.

It’s a very detailed plan which proposes the creation of a common European army, funded from a common budget.  It lists out how many interceptor fighters should be in each squadron. It permits the European Defence Forces to recruit in the member states. It allows for conscription of males between certain ages. It bars member states from recruiting for national forces except in very limited circumstances, mostly to do with defending overseas territories.

It is so detailed, in fact, that it even has a section on the tax arrangements of military canteens and restaurants.  

In short, it has all the things Sinn Fein, the Daily Mail and the alphabet left warned you about. As someone who supports a common European defence, I got giddy with excitement as I read it, and even more excited when I realised it had been agreed to by German, French, Italian, Dutch and Belgian ministers, who had even drafted a treaty to implement it.

I mean, a treaty! How more serious can you be?

Any day now, right?

The proposal was called the Pleven plan, and was announced in 1952, finally being rejected by the French National Assembly in 1954. Sixty two years ago.  

European Army? Yeah, right.

 
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But do Irish voters really want more housing?

Posted by Jason O on Sep 10, 2016 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 29th August 2016. 

You would have to travel far to find a people with the capacity to comfortably hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time as much as we as a people have.

All this week, in the professional media, on social media, one would easily come away with the impression that the Irish people are absolutely committed to the idea that building more housing is a vital let-nothing-stop-us national priority. Stories of students struggling to find housing, and then being clobbered with high rents, or of homeless people in hotels, it’s all there. The Irish people want more housing built. Fact.

Yet there are more votes mobilised by stopping specific housing proposals than by supporting them. Just look at the leaflets one gets from county councillors, where more often than not, they are bragging about how they got an “inappropriate” development stopped. There’s always a reason, and it’s always worded the same way: “Of course we all support more housing, but the traffic/parking/heritage of this particular part of my ward means that this proposal is not right for the area.”

Invariably, there are hundreds of locals who will have lobbied the councillor. How many people without homes will have lobbied him in support of the development? Aside from the developer, who gets the mark of Cain upon him for being, you know, a developer, almost nobody.

A Fianna Fail candidate told me once of being savaged at the door by a woman in a very posh part of Dun Laoghaire because her daughter couldn’t get a house “in the area”. When he pointed out that he was in favour of a proposed local development, she savaged him for that too. What did she want? Short of putting someone else out of their house and giving it to her daughter, there was no way to please her.

Housing, like Accident & Emergency, is one of those issues that we all support change in theory but would oppose the actual measures needed to deliver it. Not even for nefarious reasons, by the way. Many of the people who oppose local developments do genuinely worry about the affect it’ll have on local traffic or schools or parking or the price of the single most important asset their family owns, their home. It’s very understandable. But at its heart it calls the bluff on the idea that providing housing is an absolute priority of us as a society. It isn’t. It’s actually a “Yeah, let’s have more housing as long as it doesn’t upset other things we value more” priority.

As long as we allow planning decisions to be decided effectively by councillors elected in geographically-based wards, we will struggle to make the planning decisions we need, because there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of the system. The councillors are elected by people who live in the ward, have homes, and so don’t see the need for radical change. The people who don’t have homes, who might vote for pro-building candidates, don’t live for the most part in the area where the planning is proposed and so have no votes.

That’s assuming, by the way, that there is even a pro-building candidate on the ballot paper. Given the local government scandals of the old days, of brown envelopes and section four motions, almost any councillor who supports development is immediately accused by someone of being on the take. You end in a surreal position where conservative “pull the ladder up behind you” and so-called left wing pro-housing councillors terrified of anything with “developer” on it campaign against the same developments. If you want votes, it’s the safest thing to do.

It’s yet another reason why directly-elected mayors would be such a good idea. The mayor would be elected by the county-at-large, and so those who regard housing as an absolute priority would be an important body of voters whose votes would at least matter county-wide. A mayor coming to an end of their term, seeking re-election, would know that the number of homes they built would be a key issue for which they would be held accountable, especially in debates with other mayoral candidates. Finally, there would be a person on a ballot paper every five years whom you could say “See him? He’s the guy who is supposed to deliver on this. Let’s fire him.”

Not someone elected by the people of Some-Other-Parish South Central, and appointed housing minister by his crony the Taoiseach, but instead hired and fired by the people most affected by his housing decisions. 

Of course, that all sounds a bit too much like taking responsibility. We could always just stick an actionable right to housing into the constitution and let the Supreme Court decide national planning and housing budgets, leaning over maps in their wigs dropping high-rise blocks of flats into areas like a giant game of judicial Monopoly. Curiously enough, I could see that working, as it would sit very comfortable with the national sport of blaming those terrible people up in “the castle in Dublin”.

I could see a whole generation of professional fist-shaking Irish politicians breathing a sigh of relief at having yet another responsibility taken off them, and replaced with decades of manufactured indignation about how undemocratic it all is and how vital political reform is. Nice work if you can get it.

 
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Never mind the burqini, it’s the veil that’s the problem.

Posted by Jason O on Aug 29, 2016 in European Union, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

The first time I ever saw a picture of a burqini, being worn by Nigella Lawson on a beach, my reaction was to wonder why I’d never heard of it before. It’s a fabulous, logical invention, especially if you’re someone like me who follow’s Billy Connolly’s observation that Scottish people in the sun start out first as blue, then white, red, then white again. The sun and I are not friends, and I can see how a person would want something like this. There’s also the fact that there’s nothing particularly Muslim about wanting to preserve one’s modesty on the beach. There’s nothing European about having to show off all the goods either, just that you have the right to if you feel you’ve got goods worth showing. For what it’s worth, a male burqini, if such a thing exists, would transform me from badly shaved bear to strange bearded whale. Either way my modesty would almost certainly be protected by averted eyes and the odd queasy stomach.

The decision by various French mayors to ban the burqini is just plain wrong and to me shockingly un-French. In short, it has been targeted because it is being worn by one particular religious group, not for any practical reason. Wearing a burqini does not affect the enjoyment of the beach by others, nor is it any less hygienic (a particularly dodgy claim) than wearing a wetsuit. This is simple straight bigotry targeted at one religion in the hijacked name of liberalism.

The veil, on the other hand, is different. It goes against a core value of European culture about face to face interaction, and is a direct challenge to that culture. In short, those who wish to wear the burqa in Europe must ask themselves does their desire to wear it trump their desire to be part of European society, because that is the choice. Indeed, perhaps it is time that Europe go even further on the veil. There are, no doubt, women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who do not wish to wear the burqa, and women in Europe who do. Would it not make more sense for both our societies and for those women themselves to live in a society that mirrors their values? I for one would have no problem swapping liberated Saudi women for their European shuffling letterbox peering counterparts.

All this raises a broader question of European values in themselves, and what values must a person subscribe to be part of European society. In Germany, France and Austria it is a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust occurred. In the past, I’ve believed that such an offence is an infringement on the freedom of speech, despite the absolutely loathsome concept of the offence in itself. But today, I’m not so sure. Would it be possible to draft a charter of civic European values that we all aspire towards, and more importantly, being opposed to them becomes a crime in itself and also grounds for denial of refugee status? Now, it’s true that going from west to east Europe gets more conservative, and you won’t get the same rights for gays in Poland that you will in Ireland, but even within that spectrum you have a set of values that are broadly transferable. No EU member state jails gays or mistreats Jews, and those are values that are a beacon of progress in other parts of the world. 

But it also raises the question of whether, for example, we really want people coming to live in Europe who support the burqa? Or see Jews as less than equal, or deny the Holocaust, or regard homosexuals or women as inferior? It’s true, there are many native born Europeans who would have problems with some of those values, but so what? This isn’t an anti-Muslim charter but an anti-extremist one. But more importantly, let it be the litmus test for asylum seeking in Europe. These are the values you have to subscribe to, and if you question them, keep walking.

Immigration is a good thing, and I can see both the hijab and the burqini become part of European culture in a way that doesn’t threaten our core freedoms. I would not be surprised to see either feature on the walkways of Paris or Milano in the future, and we have nothing to fear. But the veil is different, and it has no place in a society that regards the genders as equal.

Women who are forced by husbands or families to wear the veil must be helped, and their oppressors (for that is what they are) must be confronted by our laws. Forcing a woman to wear a veil is an act of oppression. As for the women who choose to wear it by their own choice, that is their right, as it is to find a society more in tune with their values, because Europe is not that place.

 
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Is it time for a Young People’s Party?

Posted by Jason O on Aug 23, 2016 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition on Monday 15th August 2016.

You can’t blame Fianna Fail for their pledge to increase the state pension by a fiver. More than anything else, Fianna Fail exists to win elections, and you go where you think the votes are, and pensioners vote. The question as to whether pensioners actually need another €5 a week is an entirely different issue. Ask Fianna Fail and you’ll get Standard Answer No.1 in the Big Book of Automatic Political Responses: “Haven’t they worked so hard, our old people? Aren’t they entitled to dignity in the winter of their years, etc?” Politically, it’s untouchable. Grade A political gold.

But ask another question: is the €150 million the increase will cost the best use of an extra €150 million we just happen to have down the back of the National Fiscal Sofa? Could it be put to better use on a more socially just cause? Because let’s be honest: there are undoubtedly pensioners struggling to get by. No question. But there are also pensioners who paid off their mortgages years ago, have their medical cards and bus passes and will always thank you for an extra fiver but, (insert incoming political taboo warning here) don’t actually need it. Even if you wanted to just target pensioners who actually are struggling, by giving them a supplement payment, that would be better and simply fairer, targeting finite resources towards those in need.

We’re not dopes. This is simply Fianna Fail bending the knee and paying tribute to the motherlode of dependable actual voters. They’re not the first, and they won’t be the last either.

It also raises the question about how another significant group of voters gets the opposition of the “haven’t they worked so hard?” treatment. Our young people. Young entrants into teaching or nursing got shafted by their own unions in order to protect older, better paid members. Social welfare restrictions were put on young people when wealthy pensioners were getting free medical cards thrown at them. Young people are an easy target because politicians believe that they just don’t vote in reliable enough numbers to matter, or in a significant way that might affect them. Remember the pensioners protesting over the over 70s medical card? They knew what their issue was, and which party’s candidates were to blame. And they voted. The trifecta of political terror. Young people, on the other hand, sure who knows if they even vote, and whether it’s over polar bears or the gays or whatever.

You can’t blame politicians. If young voters don’t take themselves or their own issues seriously, why should politicians? Democracy gives us all a vote, currency that politicians hunger for. But you have to be willing to spend yours wisely to get the best value for it.  

Here’s a group of voters that not only has a unifying economic interest, but has the demographic heft, if it chose to use it, to actually get things. Imagine a properly organised Young People’s Party, for the under 30s, which actually dared say “The pensioners have gotten enough. It’s our turn now.”

That’s not to say that all young people think the same politically. Of course they don’t. But this is a section of society that has the most job insecurity, highest unemployment, greatest difficulty affording putting a roof over its head assuming it can even find a roof to pay for. There’s certainly enough there for a platform that a lot of young voters could look at and say “these guys are talking about me”.  But where is their political voice? The Alphabet Left parties and Labour have always tried to set themselves up as the natural voices for young people but even they will put pensioners interests first because they too need the votes.

Just ask one of them, live in front of a microphone, will they put the interests of young people ahead of that of pensioners. They’ll give you some guff about intergenerational solidarity and how both should be priorities.

But that always, always results in the pensioners getting to the head of the queue. This isn’t about creating an anti-pensioners party: but it is about pointing out that all the other parties put pensioners first every time and that is not in the interest of the under 30s. 

The biggest favour a young people’s party would do for all of us would be to force politicians to admit that politics is about the distribution of finite resources, and that no, everybody can’t be sorted from the same pot. As Brexit showed in the UK, the division between  young and old is becoming a potential seismic fault in politics, and you can’t blame young people for wanting to stand up for their interests which are often different from those of their parents. The rising cost to young taxpayers of an aging and longer living population is going to contribute to that division. The truly radical departure of a young people’s party, and its greatest challenge, would be to resist the urge hardwired into every Irish politician to pander for every vote equally.

Of course, this all hinges on young people actually getting organised and doing all those boring things that you need to get candidates on ballot papers and then to win votes and seats. Have young people been pushed economically far enough to be willing to do something about it? That’s the question.  

 
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I’ll take a united Ireland seriously when I hear Irish politicians tell us what they’ll concede.  

Posted by Jason O on Aug 3, 2016 in Irish Politics, The Times Ireland Edition

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition

Picture the scene: the new National Assembly of Ireland-stroke-Dail Eireann meets for the first time, gathering to be addressed by President Kenny and King Charles III. The new national anthem, Two Peoples, One Country, written by Bono, is sung awkwardly by the assembled group, all reading from hymn sheets. In the Dail chamber, the new flag of the country, a South African style pointing to the future arrow affair made up of green, white, orange, blue and red is put into place alongside the tricolour and (at the insistence of unionists) the UK flag. Both heads of state deliver part of their speeches in English, Irish and Ulster Scots, the three official languages. In the United Nations, a new country name is slotted into place: the Federal Union of Ireland. In Dublin, civil servants correct official documents to reflect the fact that many of the former unionist politicians were bought off with various titles, and we are now a country with Sirs and Lords in official life. To wrap up the day in the traditional manner, the Canadian Ambassador punches someone.

It’s not unreasonable to suspect that there is something in the above paragraph that will get up the nose of either unionists or nationalists. But it also raises the fact that when the issue of a united Ireland is raised publicly, as it was last week by the Taoiseach, its’ proponents have usually given little thought to the actual details.

There’s an almost Trump-like approach to the issue, where questions are met with “It’ll be great!” followed by louder singing of rebel songs. Is there a single leader of nationalist Ireland who would be willing to list out, in detail, the actual things that we as a country would have to concede to unionists in return for their widespread consent?

As it happens, even the idea of seeking widespread consent from unionists is controversial, with too many nationalists believing in the Putin/Erdogan idea that 50.1% of the vote gives you a right to ride absolutely roughshod over the other 49.9%. We know this is a dumb idea because we’ve seen it ourselves in the north of Ireland from 1922 to the Good Friday Agreement, and how it not only doesn’t work but actually makes things worse.

The truth is that even if there is a hair-splitting majority of voters in Northern Ireland in favour of a united Ireland, unionists will still have a blocking veto on what the new Ireland will look like. They’ll have demands, and if we are to convince a million unionists that this is their country too, we’re going to have to concede big. 

Just recall the indignation that something as minor (yes, it is) as re-joining the Commonwealth attracts. That’s at the very bottom of concessions. Wait until we need a new national anthem, flag, name, or have to recognise in a new constitution how important the British sovereign is to a section of, yes, our people. Wait until we find the DUP demanding that the Northern Assembly has a veto over the removal of the 8th amendment.

Then there is the honours system. How do we feel about having a Lord as Taoiseach-stroke-Prime Minister of Ireland? What about the compulsory teaching of Irish in the north and Ulster Scots to our children in our schools, a language which, let’s be polite, most of the south doesn’t even accept is a language as much as the soundtrack to an episode of Rab C Nesbitt.  

All this before we get into the meat and potatoes of how we fund this. If I have learnt one thing in the last ten years of Irish politics, it’s that the Irish people are plain lying when they say they are willing to pay extra taxes for a noble cause.

An Irish government would be wise to test that support in the one place where the Irish always tell the truth not to pollsters or their politicians but to themselves: their wallets. A government that announced a new unity levy on VAT and PAYE to build up a ring-fenced reserve to pay for a future reconnected Northern Ireland in advance of a referendum on reunification would certainly put every nationalist party in a bind. It’s one thing to belt them out at the top of one’s lungs at closing time, but quite another thing to happily put one’s hand in one’s pocket for the privilege. It’ll be fun watching the anti-tax parties (i.e. all of them) dance a jig around the issue. They can hardly claim double taxation on this one, although I’ve no doubt that some will suggest that the EU, US or even the Brits should and will somehow pay for it all.    

Perhaps we It could even put that proposal to the people in a pre-unity referendum, a straight forward “put your money where your mouth is, Irish” to the voters.

Would it pass? Maybe it would. Perhaps I’m just too cynical to see the patriotic passion that a possible united nation once again means to so many. But given they’re not so hot on paying for clean water coming out of their own taps, forgive me if I remain sceptical about voters in the republic taxing themselves extra to guarantee loyalists the NHS.

Copyright © 2017 Jason O Mahony All rights reserved. Email: Jason@JasonOMahony.ie.