Why the (imperfect) Directly- Elected Mayor of Limerick should be welcomed.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

Picture the scene: Michael Collins sitting across from that wily old Welsh fox British prime minister David Lloyd George, faced with two choices. 

One, the acceptance of Saorstát Éireann and a partitioned dominion status still under (nominally) the British crown, or two, a continued war which Collins, the architect of our war against the British, believed was ultimately doomed through lack of resources. 

Now, imagine if Collins, who had fought for a single republic covering the whole island, had instead proffered a third option: that Ireland stay in the United Kingdom until the perfect all-Ireland republic model was offered.

Decades later we’d be still going to summer schools and debating what sort of republic would be the best, all under a union jack fluttering in the breeze, opposed to any change until we get the exact model that delivers absolutely everything we aspire to.

Welcome to Irish politics 2021.

Listening to the arguments against the proposed Directly-Elected Mayor (DEM) for Limerick is close to making me explode, for the simple reason that it is a debate so covered in falsehood.

Don’t get me wrong: there are good arguments against having elected mayors. 

I don’t agree with them, but I accept their validity. 

But that’s not what we are getting here.

Instead, we get arguments that go from the moronic to the downright dishonest.

Firstly, the argument that we shouldn’t have an elected mayor because we will have to pay them is a valid one provided you’re willing to say that you’re happy with Dublin making the decisions, through the county manager (I hate the term chief executive). But you know what: the people who are happy to knock the idea are very often the first to complain that their county is ignored by Dublin. They can’t have it both ways.     

Then there’s the argument that we will elect gobshites, which is quite possible, but is an argument against Irish democracy, not elected mayors. 

Opposing DEMs as just a pure two-fingers-to-politics isn’t much of an argument either, just a very very conservative act against change dressed up as anti-establishmentism. 

The real opposition, though, is the most duplicitous.

That’s the people who claim to be very enthusiastic about DEMs, but feel that the issue needs to be debated endlessly until the perfect model is arrived at. 

The stay-under-British-rule until perfection argument.

It’s a con argument. Mostly by county councillors who actually want to keep the current year long taxpayer-funded responsibility-free ego trip, but don’t want to admit it in public. 

It’s the same argument used to delay Seanad reform. 

Remember that? 

Remember politicians falling over each other with Seanad reform proposals right up to referendum day, and then suddenly vanishing? Same malarkey. They don’t want Seanad reform: they want to keep the argument going on forever to avoid reform. 

It’s the same with debates on DEMs. 

It’s the weirdest coalition you’ll ever see: people who hate politicians because they believe they’re in politics to look after themselves siding with politicians who want to keep the current system for that exact reason, to look after themselves. 

The proposed DEM system isn’t ideal. 

It’s unclear how the mayor and the chief executive will actually work together. What happens if the mayor and the chief executive have a falling-out over, say, a proposal by the chief executive to build an urban whitewater rafting facility?

I have no idea. But I’d sure like to see what happens when there’s someone in the room opposed to it with a few hundred thousand first preferences in her back pocket.

The DEM is a progressive start for two reasons.

One: it identifies a single person in every county who can be held accountable for the actions and policies of the county council.     

Two: it lets ordinary voters fire them, which is a great motivator for politicians.

Something you can’t do with the county chief executive. 

As to the argument that it will be just a ceremonial position, ask yourself this. 

If the mayor job doesn’t matter, why does it currently have a year-long term? Why not just let the mayoralty rotate month by month to every councillor alphabetically? That way they wouldn’t have to take time off work to be mayor (or get paid much), but could just take it during their annual holidays. 

One reason is the publicity, but the other reason is that even if a mayor was elected for five years under our current system, by the councillors themselves, the public would start holding them responsible for the council. 

It would stop being the mostly-showboating job that most councillors pretend it isn’t. 

The current mayoral term is designed for a year’s worth of subsidised publicity but not long enough to be blamed for anything. This would change that, and the fact that so many councillors are campaigning on a “Less power now!” platform is surreal.

Directly Elected Mayors are not a panacea for every problem, but they are a game-changer. From day one the mayor will have decision-making powers comparable to the chief executive, and more importantly a framework to build on, gaining experience and then looking for more power to be devolved locally. 

We didn’t get to be a united republic from 1921. 

The treaty was not the end of our journey, but the stepping stone to us taking our place at the table of European sovereign nations. From Free State to republic to EU member to you-know-what.

The proposal for mayor of Limerick is the same: the first modest step in moving decision-making power from the Custom House to where most people live, and should be seized upon in that spirit. 

The Dublin Bay South By-Election: a few observations.

Firstly, congratulations to Ivana Bacik and Labour. People forget, winning a by-election is a big deal because you have to basically get half the people to either vote for you or not actively against you.

Secondly, a tip of the hat to Virgin Media News Gavan Reilly (@Gavreilly) who created an absolutely superb tool for (access here) the count and after giving us a wealth of information not just on the count but where the votes come from. There’s some interesting stuff here. For example:

The spread of the Bacik vote, from respectable in low-income areas to very impressive in high-income areas shows how Bacik/Labour was seen as the safe vote, especially in the context of a possible challenge from Sinn Fein.

The fact that Fine Gael only did alright in one of the wealthiest constituencies in the country is an eye-opener into the Irish political psyche. On the one hand, wealthy people were very comfortable voting for an avowed socialist. On the other hand, they weren’t particularly nervous about it either. In short, is Labour now our Liberal Democrats?

It’s also worth noting that there were four districts where Sinn Fein got a whooping West Belfast style 59%-68% of the first preference vote. The other parties need to be careful that those areas do not become de facto no-go areas, with murals and reminders to other party canvassers that “this is a Sinn Fein” area. Some activists are saying this has been happening for a while already, and that the other parties just don’t seem to have access to the same paid resources SF has . Of course, Sinn Fein will say that the lack of attention by other parties is what has led to such a strong vote.

Let me also say that if the new Electoral Commission isn’t producing this sort of data at ward level for easily public consumption they’re not doing their job properly.

Finally: Fianna Fail’s poor performance once again confronts that party with a question it doesn’t want to ask itself: what is it actually for? If it didn’t exist it, would its current members create it? What is the unique thing non-FF members attribute to FF?

How to use your ballot most effectively.

One of the great mysteries of the age is that we have exported Aonghus McAnally’s “The Lyrics Board” (remember that?) to more countries than we have our electoral system, the Single Transferable Vote. 

It’s a funny one, because STV is probably the most empowering voting system on the planet. It’s fair in that it is reasonably proportional, it lets geographic areas have a clear representative, and it allows voters to personally choose their representatives. 

It also allows voters to vote the way human beings actually vote, as opposed to the weird “My party is perfect, your party should be executed for crimes against decency” approach many party hacks seem to sign up to. 

STV lets voters really like those guys, hate those other guys and meh the rest.

It also has a built-in feature that almost no other voting system has. It permits you to vote for your favorite candidate and stick the electoral knife Agatha Christie deep into the back of that one candidate you really really want to keep out.     

It is by far the best voting system in the world to watch as a spectator support. Indeed, I’m surprised RTE don’t release an election count highlight DVD after every election. 

The first count result is not always the absolute decider of all the winners, and transfers allow for last minute Millenium Falcon On Its Side Speeding Through Closing Blast Doors drama comebacks. If the CNN were covering our elections, we’d have theme music for everything from the first count to transfers to the final seat, and a Wolf Blitzer (Politics nerds will get this reference) hologram live from the count centre in Laois-Offaly. 

If you’re a sadist, it’s the political system designed to taunt and dangle false hope in front of politicians who thought their seat was safe/lost and are now mocked often down to the last count. If you asked Schrodinger to design a voting system, he’d come up with this.  

It’s a voting system Dante would have loved, save for the fact that Lucifer would probably look at Irish politics and thinks “Eh, no thanks lads, even I have to look at myself in the mirror occasionally. Also: is that RHI scheme thing still open? Actually, how did those DUP canvassers even find our front door?”    

I bring it up because every time there is an election I get a flurry of messages, online and personally, from friends, relatives and readers asking how to vote. 

Most political cronies I know are the same. 

It’s an indictment, by the way, as to how badly civics was taught (or not) in our schools, and also the failure of FG and Labour to deliver the much-promised electoral commission tasked with running and educating all things election. I never saw a copy of the constitution until I found one by accident in a local newsagent, and bought it, which is also an indictment of my sadly un-misspent youth.  

People do know how to vote, but it’s the subtleties of the Single Transferable Vote that give rise to all sorts of myths and questions. Here’s a few of them. 

  1. Cast your first preference for the person you really want. This sounds so obvious, but it’s true. Don’t try to second guess other voters. Yes, parties try to get people to vote tactically, and if your party winning an extra seat is your primary goal then vote tactically. But remember, in the great majority of constituencies the people who come first to fifth, depending on how many seats are in the constituency, tend to fill the seats in the end. First preferences matter the most, because they are the only vote that will definitely be counted.
  2. You decide where your vote goes, not the parties. A clear preference must be visible to the returning officer before he transfers a vote. Your ballot paper is written permission from you to the returning officer who to transfer to and who not to.  
  3. Your preferences cannot affect your later preferences. This is another perennial that seems to have emerged from the mists of psephology. When a lower preference has been reached (2,3,4 etc) it means that the candidate beforehand has been either elected or eliminated for having the least votes available, and so is out of competition for preferences. 
  4. Do not write anything other than numbers on your ballot paper, as anything else may be taken as a sign of political intimidation: that you have been bullied into voting for a certain candidate and have put a mark on the ballot to prove to count observers that you have done what you promised.  
  5. If you want to really try to stop an individual getting elected, give a preference to every other candidate. This means that your vote is available to help any candidate fighting your most hated candidate. The more preferences you leave blank means the less help your vote can potentially be to other candidates. If there is a group of candidates you hate equally, leave them all blank. It means that none of them can help stop any other of them.
  6. No, spoiled or blank ballots do not “automatically go to the government”. I hear this every year, and I have no idea where it comes from.    

We, the people of Malta, and Australia are the only people lucky enough to use STV in national elections. It has its flaws: it makes TDs get a version of the bends if they’re out of their constituency longer than 12 hours, and obsess about the effect of fairies on municipal road planning, but as voter choice goes, it’s hard to beat. 

Book Review: “Selling Hitler” by Robert Harris.

Before he became world famous as the author of “Fatherland” in 1992, Robert Harris was a respected journalist who wrote, in 1986, the definite account of the Hitler Diaries scandal of 1983.

For readers unfamiliar with the scandal, in 1981/82 the German magazine Stern believed it was offered, by a secretive route through East Germany, the personal diaries of one Adolf Hitler that had supposedly been recovered from a plane crash in early 1945.

They were fraudulent, manufactured by a moderately-gifted forger who should have been detected within days of delivering the first volumes.

Instead, Stern, believing they had stumbled onto one of the publishing scoops of the century, proceeded to engage in one of the greatest farces of modern publishing history, where a mixture of fraud, wilful suspension of disbelief and assumption led to a comedic shambles.

The book reads like a thriller (unsurprisingly), and is a wonderful testament to how a mixture of money, hope and the simple belief by everybody that someone else had seriously verified what was on offer. As it happened, the verification was so half-assed that at one stage one expert was unknowingly verifying Hitler’s supposed handwriting in the diaries against a sample he believed to be real but was actually created by the forger himself.

The cast of characters is superb, from ex-Nazis to Rupert Murdoch to David Irving mischievously and masterfully dropping himself right into the middle of the action, to a deluded German journalist absolutely convinced that Martin Bormann was going to suddenly appear to endorse the whole thing!

I recommend the Audible version read by David Rintoul, one of the leading audiobook narrators in the world.

Book Review: “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir

It’s very simple. If you enjoyed “The Martian” you’ll enjoy this.

It starts out very much in the same way, as a lone astronaut in a crisis far from home, but it’s not a Martian reboot, for reasons which I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to blow the various twists which Weir has quite skillfully put into it.

An astronaut wakes up on a ship to find his two crewmates dead and that he can’t remember even his own name, never mind where he is, or why. I won’t go any further than that, other than it delivers.

I listened to it on Audible (as I do with most fiction) and I find it helps in particular with Andy Weir as he’s quite science heavy (Potato planting, anyone? Martian inside joke there) and I struggle to grasp some of the concepts, but it’s a very well thought through book, even to the point of dealing with issues that “Star Trek” takes for granted.

The one weakness in it is the political aspects to it, which I assume were written pre-Trump and make assumptions that simply don’t apply anymore.

I’m not surprised it has already been optioned as a movie, and I’ll be first in the queue to see it.

A Sinn Fein-Fine Gael coalition is (now) no longer an unbelievable idea.

There is an old Vulcan saying: “Only Nixon could have gone to China.” It was referenced by Spock when he proposed, much to James T Kirk’s chagrin, that only an anti-Klingon hardliner like the Enterprise captain would be trusted by the Federation to negotiate with their old enemies in crucial peace talks. Likewise, we as a country are approaching a crucial moment in Irish history: where the real breach in Irish politics, not that between FF and FG, but that between Sinn Fein and the state itself, is finally healed. For that to happen, those of us who fear for the integrity of the state itself have a choice to make. Do we attempt to keep SF out of government forever, or do attempted the political version of a controlled re-entry?

At SF’s current support in the country it is simply no longer viable to maintain a Cordon Sanitaire against the party. I have many criticisms of SF but it is no longer a party of its historical extreme anymore than FG is. It is the democratic choice of anything from 25%-35% of Irish voters and that is a mandate. There are those in the party who have a curiously Tory view of politics, that if Sinn Fein wins the plurality of the vote it somehow has the right (as Tories believe in the UK) to impose their minority opinions on the majority because they were “first past the post”. But this is not the UK: this is a republic with a parliament elected by a fair voting system which means that a government must have majority support in the parliament, and that parliament’s majority must have majority support (or close to it) in the country. Does it lead to weaker government? Almost certainly: we’ve never had a Mrs Thatcher in this country, and on the other hand, we’ve never had a Mrs Thatcher in this country.

Keeping Sinn Fein permanently out of government is no more healthy than the situation in the north, keeping them (and the DUP) permanently in government. Their day, to coin a phrase, will come.

Thanks to STV however, it is very unlikely they’ll even be close to a majority in the Dail, and so will need coalition partners, and it seems to me that FG may well be the least worst option.

The idea of FG in coalition with SF is not a new one. Many in FF suggested it before the last election, but both FF and FG ruled it out, and kept that particular promise. But at the next election I believe it would be wrong for FF or FG to rule out coalition with SF, if only because it is looking mathematically, if the polls are accurate, that at least two of those three parties will be needed to form a stable government.

You could be forgiven for thinking that FF would be a more logical coalition partner, given FF’s republican roots etc. But I’d like to suggest that such an option would be a very bad choice for FF because FF is in a curiously weak ideological position, and yes, that actually matters. A party that currently resembles more a franchise like Spar than a party with a set of cogent and unique values is open to infection (and eventual assimilation) by its coalition partner. Look how FF went to the right in coalition with the Progressive Democrats, and to the left with Labour. It’s the large jug of water waiting to be flavoured by the stronger Mi-Wadi of its partners, and SF definitely has the stronger flavour of the two. Could FF be to SF in govt what the PDs were to FF in their watchdog role? It’s hard to say that FF is currently as strong in its self-identity as the PDs were in theirs, and that makes FF vulnerable to a de facto reverse takeover in coalition with SF, with FF candidates ending up as sweeper candidates for their coalition partners.

A stronger argument can be made that FG would be the better coalition partner with SF, in that both parties would then cover the two broad political viewpoints in the country. It’s also very unlikely that either SF or FG would end up in either’s thrall, and that’s to the good. Both would check each other’s excesses, FG would take the national security issue seriously, and FF would, with the Alphabet Left, have an opportunity to recover in opposition and provide robust scrutiny to an SF/FG government.

Indeed, a decision by FF to refuse to coalesce with SF would put SF in a very awkward position, assuming FG don’t rule it out also, in that it’ll be hard for SF to play the cheated victim if it refuses an offer from FG to enter negotiations to form a coalition, especially now as the principle of a rotating Taoiseach has now been conceded.

The challenge for FG is equally substantial. The default position, vote FG to keep SF out, is a simple and attractive one, from a vote-getting perspective. But it is not the national interest position. SF are not going away. SF speaks for a substantial section of the Irish people and will enter government at some point, and it is better they enter government with an equally strong-willed coalition partner as opposed to the current “in-therapy” FF or the rubber-stamping magic-bean buying Social Democrats. FG needs to start preparing its voters for this possibility, because if there is one thing we have learnt from recent Irish politics: Irish voters don’t like either surprises or 180 degree handbrake turns from the parties they’ve just voted for.

Europe needs a plan.

And it is as much about where Europe is not heading as where it is.

If you ever want to increase your general euroscepticism, spend a few days hanging around EU institutions. The sheer complexity of getting anything done, in a union of 27 countries with competing political systems, national prejudices and hangups is nothing as compared to a certain type of EU official you meet for whom the answer to ever problem is…go on, guess.

More Europe.

Let me be very clear: I’m a European federalist. I believe in a United States of Europe. But that does not mean that I think that every solution involves Brussels. Indeed, I could even be convinced that maybe some existing powers should be returned to the member states.

I believe in the EU as our best hope of dealing with those huge problems facing our (tiny) countries, but at the same time I despair. There’s currently a Conference of the Future of Europe going on, spending millions trying to get European citizens involved in a debate about, well, guess what.

I’ll be shocked if more than 1% of Europeans have heard of it. Not because it is a white wash, or a plot by the elite, but because Europeans simply don’t think at that level yet. They do on some issues, like security and defence and immigration, but mostly, people see Europe through their countries and we need to recognise that.

Rather than have yet another tome come out of Brussels, I’d like to see a simple declaration from Europe’s leaders outlining clearly what we see the EU existing for. I’ve had a stab at it below. Many of the things outlined are already in the treaties, and would, I feel, benefit from a more succinct public airing as opposed to being buried in the treaties.

We, the democratically elected leaders of the 27 member states of the European Union, declare the following:

  1. The European Union is, and shall remain, a union of sovereign democratic nations. There shall be no attempt to abolish the nation states.
  2. The European Union and its institutions are subordinate to the member states, and exist at the pleasure of the member states. The union and its institutions exist to enhance the sovereignty and capabilities of the member states.
  3. No proposal of the European Union shall be accepted without the support of 55% of the member states with a combined population exceeding 65% of the population of the EU.
  4. The Presidents of the European Commission and Council shall only hold office with the consent of the national governments. A public shortlist of candidates for both offices shall be published by the Council not less than one week before the vacancy is to be filled. The candidates must be selected from this list.
  5. No European Army shall replace the national armies of the member states. A European Defence Force may exist in parallel to national forces.
  6. The recruitment and conscription of national citizens to serve in a military capacity in Europe remains the sole right of the national governments. The EU may not introduce conscription.
  7. Europe recognises that there are issues, from the security of our Eastern borders to controlling who shall enter our continent, to climate change to fighting terrorism, which cannot be solved by any single European nation but require a common European approach and solution.
  8. Europe shall have the right to determine who shall enter and may live in Europe, and require of those individuals to respect and live by the culture and values of the European nations they live in, and by the common values of Europe.
  9. Europe reserves the right to act outside its borders in defence of itself and the values of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  10. A third of member states may act in enhanced cooperation to create further integration provided the proposal is not in breach of EU law and shall be open to other member states who may wish to join later.
  11. A third of national parliaments may request that the European Commission revise a draft proposal on the grounds of subsidiarity.
  12. No new country shall join the European Union without the consent of all the existing member states. Every member state has the right to put accession of a member state to a referendum of its people in accordance with its national constitution.
  13. The union recognises the right of any member state to leave the union peacefully. Every member state recognizes that the remaining member states shall act in common protection of their interests in such an event.

Life in the Constitutional States of America.

A political fantasy.

President Cruz looked out of the window of the New White House at the large crowds gathered in front of the building. The executive building, formally known as Mar a Lago had not been an ideal location for the new government of the CSA, but as with so many things, a Trump family tax shenanigan had led to it. The former president had “Gifted” it to the new nation, and the whole area had been designated a Constitutional District and so was now the capital. Somehow, of course, the Trumps had made money out of this, but not one member of the CS Senate had dared point this out. Cruz had read a piece in The Economist which had likened the Trumps to the Thai or Saudi Royal Families as the CSA’s “ruling family”. It wasn’t a million miles from the truth: the former president and now his children still had a bewitching power over voters in the Constitutional Republican primaries, and that was the only way into power in the CSA given that the more liberal urban areas were now gerrymandered and voter-harrassed into ineffectiveness.

The peaceful separation of the United States into the Federal States (mostly blue) and the Constitutional States (mostly red) had been a long and painfully negotiated process following the nightmare of the 2024 presidential election. Minnesota voted by a surprising margin to join the CSA whilst Georgia, Michigan, and North Carolina all surprised pundits by voting to join the “blue US”. The United States continued to exist legally, as a common customs, currency and defence bloc, but within ten years of the “manifest divorce” clear differences were visible, and no more so than in the CSA.

Book Review: “Where did I go right?” by Geoff Norcott.

Books like Geoff Norcott’s “Where did I go right?” are much more common in the US, where every aspiring conservative pundit attempts to carve out their niche on the politico-celeb circuit. Owen Jones has probably been the single most successful follower of that career path in the UK, and as a general rule, it is easier to do so coming from the liberal left that from the pro-Tory pro-Brexit right Norcott does. A former teacher turned stand-up comedian, he never set out to be political, but has managed to create for himself a rather niche position, being the centre-right comic that people on the centre and centre-left can actually enjoy. He winks at his left-wing fans rather than tries to disparage them, and if you are offended by Norcott, then let’s assume your threshold is pretty low.

I listened to the book on Audible read by Norcott himself and his stand-up experience has helped him write and deliver a very conversational and entertaining book. What really works is that Norcott doesn’t claim to start from a position of being morally right from the outset: the book is a journey through his childhood and career and those points in his life that shaped his world view, and why he came to be suspicious of the welfare system his own family used, or the casual approach to discipline in the schools he taught in, or his own family’s quite awful experiences of the NHS. All the recounted stories are funny but here’s the thing: there’s not one Jacob Rees-Mogg nanny moment that makes a left-winger go “Aha! That’s why he’s a tory weirdo!”. Every turning point, from traditional Labour family with union rep dad to New Labour to Lib Dem to Cameronite Tory is the result of a logical step. Where he challenged a piece of left-wing boilerplate and decided that it didn’t make sense to him or his aspirations for himself of his family.

One common theme of the book is his constantly meeting upper middle class people who not only believed they knew better than him as to what his class needed, but became quite uncomfortable when confronted by actual working class people like him.

I didn’t agree with everything he said, not surprisingly. But as an insight into how traditional working-class families end up voting Tory, it’s worth a read.

One other thing: it’s quite concise, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. The ability to get across a story in a relatively short volume is a skill.

Will the US presidential election of 2024 be the last one as we know it?

There’s a speculative scenario doing the rounds of the US left at the moment that sounds something like this: that in 2024 the Democrats clearly win the plurality or majority of actual votes cast in the presidential election, but that a combination of voter suppression (I’m looking at you Georgia) and GOP election officials and possibly even state legislatures setting aside Democratic wins delivers a Republican majority in the electoral college, or failing that, throws it to the house where a GOP majority of state delegations delivers the White House.

What was once the fantasy of a would-be Christopher Buckley novel is now a possibility. Now, the Republicans will point to the constitution and say that they are the rules, and of course they’d be right. Under the US constitution, there’s actually no right for voters to vote directly for the president: the state legislatures are the real sources of power, and they’re all gerrymandered (Mostly) by Republicans. There’ll also be that weird group of Republicans who will point out that technically the US is not a democracy but a republic, and that how the American people vote is merely one factor in an election, unlike, say, Israel or Germany or the Netherlands where how people vote is THE deciding factor.