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.
Posted by Jason O on Sep 25, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously 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.
Posted by Jason O on Sep 10, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously 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.
Posted by Jason O on Aug 29, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously 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.
Posted by Jason O on Aug 23, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously 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.
Previously 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.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 11th July 2016:
Amidst all the pre-heave foreplay and long lingering glances going on within the Fine Gael parliamentary party, let’s put two facts about Enda Kenny on the table.
One: he didn’t win the 2011 election. Fine Gael can dress it up all they like, that a desperate nation turned to the men in blue to step forward and restore a nation’s honour, but that’s not what happened. The country voted for the largest non-Fianna Fail blunt object on offer, and that was Fine Gael.
Two: he has, to his credit, had some achievements. The economy is in better shape than when he found it, and he has to get some credit for that because if it was in a worse state he’d almost certainly get the blame. Secondly, unlike almost every government since the last abortion referendum, he actually did something on abortion. Too much in some people’s eyes, not enough in others, but he did do something. Finally, he kept his word on offering a vote on Seanad abolition, making him the only Taoiseach in a generation to actually deliver action on a major attempt at political reform.
That’s what you can say about Enda. However, what you can’t say about him is that he actually has a plan as to where he wants to take the country. If he does, he’s hiding his light so deep under a bushel that he should ask Arthur Scargill to represent him.
Is there anyone who believes Enda has a vision for where he wants to lead this country? When I say vision, I don’t mean guff, and there is a difference, which all of us in this post-truth age can recognise. A vision made of guff is full of phrases about a “world class health service” and “dignity” and a “nation to grow old with respect in”. You know. Guff.
Vision is what comes from a Taoiseach bursting with new ideas, itching to start implementing them. The words “Enda” and “bursting with new ideas” are not what you would call fellow travellers.
This country has both problems and opportunities, and it needs a leader who doesn’t regard reaching Merrion Square as being the end of the race. Consider Brexit. What’s our country’s position on the access of the City of London to the European single market in financial services? Do we have a position? If we are to poach actual firms from London, do we have a plan to deliver on the extra housing that will be needed in the Dublin region to prevent an influx of wealthy bankers, as has happened in London, driving the natives out of previously affordable areas?
Is there anyone who believes that the current Taoiseach could sustain an hour long interview on that subject without it degenerating into a swamp of the most vague twaddle?
We need a Taoiseach who can tell us the concrete facts and figures of where he or she wants to go. Who is capable of being boring by going into the detail, line by line. Who isn’t afraid to appear smarter than the rest of us, because that’s his job. Above all a Taoiseach who knows that being willing to make long-term decisions that he will never benefit politically from is the difference between being a national leader and a hack.
It also means having a Taoiseach willing to go to the country and confront it about its obsession with avoiding short-term discomfort for long-term gain. From water, to pensions to senior care to planning to health insurance provision, government after government have avoided these issues because they were, quite simply, unpopular. It’s time we have a Taoiseach who is willing to be unpopular for the right reasons and who actually tries to lead the country.
It’s also time for a Taoiseach that recognises the power of imagination and new ideas. Both the Criminal Assets Bureau and the National Treatment Purchase Fund were departures from the dreaded Way We Do Things Around Here and both delivered results. Appointing an outsider as head of the Garda Inspectorate was another one, as was appointing a Governor of the Central Bank and a Financial Regulator not from the usual deserving lads but from outside the prevailing culture. Where’s our minister for Brexit, standing alongside Pat Cox, Lucinda Creighton, Catherine Day, Ruairi Quinn, John Bruton and yes, Bertie Ahern, putting party labels aside at the Taoiseach’s request to be our tried and tested Team Ireland ready to go in for us in the most important negotiations since the War of Independence? That would be leadership.
Noel Browne was minister for health for less than four years, and never held ministerial office again. Yet we still recognise his name, because in that short time in office he made decisions on the treatment of tuberculosis that were literally life saving for thousands of people for years after he left office. It wasn’t a question of him remaining in office for as long as possible, but using that time wisely. We often forget that Noel Browne left office in 1951 generally unpopular, with his courage only really coming to be appreciated years later.
Courage matters. We need a new Taoiseach who has both courage and a plan. But even more so, we need a new Taoiseach who recognises the words of President Jed Bartlet from “The West Wing”:
Some things are more important than re-election.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on June 27th 2016.
If there was one word to describe the European Union’s policy towards almost every crisis, it would be: reactive. From Greece to the migrant crisis to banking to the Ukraine, going all the way back to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the EU just doesn’t do getting ahead of a problem.
That has to change, because we’re moving into endgame here. Brexit is like the political version of the zombie epidemic movie “28 Days Later”, watching a terrible unstoppable force overwhelm and transform something beautiful one took for granted. The problem now for Europe is that the populist infection is going to spread. From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, to Marine Le Pen in France, or Denmark or Greece or Czechia (yes, that’s what the Czechs are calling themselves these days) or even Italy, the real chance of the EU going through regular bouts of terror as other referendums appear on the horizon just won’t wash. We can’t just carry on with bits falling off at regular intervals. We’re trying to run a continent here. It’s time to cut to the proverbial chase.
One of the problems of European referendums is that they’re mostly not designed to give clear answers, but often, instead, accidentally create new questions. When Ireland voted no to the Nice and Lisbon treaties, we chose between Option A or Not Option A. Even the British Brexit vote was a vote for the unknown. Will free movement still exist after the UK leaves? How much will the UK pay in the EU budget, if at all? What happens to the Finnish wife of an Irishman living in Kentish Town? Neither they nor we know, yet the British people had to vote on it.
Each country has a view as to what it wants. Some want out, some want a trade relationship only, and others wish to integrate further, primarily around the euro. We have to recognise that the European project must adapt to the realities of the people who live in it. If they, or significant numbers of them at least, say less Europe, then less Europe it must be. The old Brussels mantra of More Europe automatically being the solution to everything is not acceptable without popular support.
Let’s let every member state take a fresh look at what it wants. A choice between leaving entirely, the Norwegian arrangement of the European Economic Area, and possibly not being in the euro, or staying in the full union with a clear understanding that it will integrate further as needed.
It might need some tinkering, possibly on the question of free movement and also on the migrant issue, but the purpose of the exercise would be to leapfrog the conveyor belt of crisis that a series of exit votes would trigger.
Would it be high stakes? Yes. But better than random exit votes appearing all over the continent like unpredictable political landmines. Let’s set a date where each country goes back to its people, and by its own national means, whether its parliament or referendum, decides what sort of EU that countries wants to sign up for. Out, EEA, or union.
Of course, every country will want to have a broad idea what other countries are doing first. After all, if the Germans found they were left in an EU with just Greece and Italy they might have second thoughts. That’s why the end of the process would involve every country coming back with its selected option under that great Irish coalition negotiating maxim, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
There’s no question that this is high risk. We’d be playing Senior Hurling. But it’s still better than the standard EU operating procedure of hiding behind a very expensive, beautifully handmade sofa and hoping that our problems will think we’re not in and go away.
Some countries will almost certainly decide to leave, and others, including possibly ourselves, will choose to step back into the outer ring of European Economic Area membership. But across the continent, the issue will have been confronted, not left as unexploded ordinance just waiting to be detonated by some random event like some internal party row (I’m looking at you, Dave). Every country will have the chance to debate itself what it wants from Europe, and select from the appropriate option.
We can’t just keep drifting on, waiting for the next Nigel or Marine or Geert to take our continent to the brink. This union, with its warts and pointy elbows and Jean Claudes is worth fighting to save. Particularly for a small country like us. There has never been a Europe better for small countries than this Europe.
Ireland always gets upset when it sees the Germans or French making joint pronouncements, but there is nothing to stop us touring the smaller countries and building a coalition for our vision of Europe. It’s time for us to step up.
Populist euroscepticism is the brassy blonde with the short skirts and the cheap perfume next door, appealing not to your husband’s head but elsewhere. If she tries to seduce him, you have two choices.
You can fight to save your marriage and keep him, or you can throw him out on the road.
But you sure as hell can’t ignore his carry-on as if nothing is happening.
It’s time to fight for this marriage.
Posted by Jason O on Jun 12, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 20th February 2016.
Here’s a hypothetical for you to consider. How would Irish voters react if the government announced that National Lottery winnings were to be subject to income tax? I have a suspicion that people would be outraged. Never mind the fact that Irish voters constantly tell pollsters that “the rich” should pay higher taxes or that they’d happily pay higher taxes for better public services. If you won €500k on the Lotto and the government announced they were taking half of it, I suspect most Irish people would have their noses seriously put out of joint. Despite the fact that it is effectively free money and they’re getting to keep a quarter of a million.
There’d be all sorts of excuses as to why Lotto winners should be exempt. That they had “invested” thousands already in unsuccessful tickets. That the multinationals don’t pay their fair share of taxes. The banks. Yeah, those two words are now an excuse for anything you don’t like. Or that isn’t it unfair that some poor creature finally gets a break and now the government is piling in on him. In short, the Irish don’t like tax more than they don’t like cuts in public services.
Yet, through this, one of the most boring and curiously distant election campaigns in recent history, that real division in Irish society has barely been touched. With the possible exception of Lucinda Creighton, hardly anyone has stood up and openly defended a view held, quietly, by a huge section of the Irish people. Stuff your public services. You’ll only give my money to pay LUAS drivers more than I earn. I want to keep my own money.
The real issue in this election is, as ever, about tax. Income tax, property tax, USC, water tax. With the exception of the Social Democrats, who are getting margin of error ratings for their troubles, hardly any candidates want to defend the concept of higher taxes paid by you for better services. The alphabet left and Fianna Fail point to those living breathing crocks o’ gold, the wealthy, as the perennial source of finance for all our public service goodies. But hardly anybody will knock on the door and tell you openly that they will tax you whatever it takes to bring people poorer than you up to your level.
Put the people who just want to keep their own money, the people who say they can’t afford to pay any more tax, and the people who say that the government will just squander it and you probably have a majority of the Irish electorate. The next Dail will have a majority, regardless of who is in government, of deputies who will resist any attempt to openly (stealth taxes are different) increase taxes on the great majority of Irish people.
Yet hardly anybody wants to debate the link between taxes and public services. Nobody ever challenges members of the public on TV debate shows or Joe Duffy about why they should get more of someone else’s earnings. It’s that wonderfully Irish ability to hold conflicting views at the same time, and never be challenged on it, and it’s not doing our society a service in ignoring it.
This election campaign would have been better served if non-party people had openly debated the future of Irish society, acting as de facto proxies for our wobbling jelly politicians who won’t say boo to a goose because they reckon the goose might give them a 6th preference. A debate between, say, Fintan O’Toole and our own Cormac Lucey would be a far more engaging and honest discussion about where we would like to go as a country than what is passing for debate between the parties.
The big invisible pachyderm at the heart of Irish politics is a pretence that there is some perfect political G spot where you can get all the public services you want for buttons in taxes. Every opposition claims it, every government fails to find it, rinse and repeat. It’s nonsense, and dishonest nonsense at that.
But instead of admitting that politics is about choices, we have a parade of politicians listing out vast sums of other people’s money which always exceeds even the piddling extra taxes or savings they will admit to supporting. At the moment, our politicians would be doing less harm if they were actually handing out cash for votes rather than making promises that involve huge public sector expansion. Irish politics would be better served if they could offer us money on the doorsteps in return for the promise of a vote.
At least then, come the day of the count, it would be the politicians who’d be storming around the count centre in a temper because they’d been lied to. “I was promised thousands of votes on the doorsteps! I gave away thousands of euro! I can’t believe the voters lied to me, I mean, what sort of lying, dishonest…” They’d stop spending money on posters and leaflets and instead every election campaign would involve the candidates and a van from Securicor going from door to door haggling like Tunisian carpet salesmen. You’d certainly make sure that you were in to meet them. Indeed, you’d probably make an appointment. In the Philippines some candidates for office are known for giving out a left shoe to voters, with the promise that the voter will get the right shoe if the candidate is elected. I could easily see a candidate working his way down a street in Ranelagh or Donnybrook with a selection of Jimmy Choos.
Wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.