What if…a right-wing populist was elected President of Ireland?

When He announced his candidacy there was much laughter in the usual circles. The idea that a “washed up” radio presenter and sports pundit could be elected president was, it was agreed in the circles that mattered, ridiculous. The New Ireland was not going to elect Trump on the Liffey.

The ruling Sinn Fein/Fianna Fail/Social Democrat government wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about even holding a presidential election, as the shiny new thing aura had come off the government and feelers had been put out to the opposition about an agreed candidate, Now Is Not the Time For Division, etc. But FG, Labour and the Greens weren’t having it. The race was on.

The first surprise was the three leaders of the coalition announcing that they would be all endorsing a single coalition candidate, and that given the flaky wobbliness of the Social Democrats remaining in government when actually confronted with policy choices, both SF and FF conceded and backed a former one-term Soc Dem TD and now senator renowned for being at the cutting edge of Irish progressivism. Her supporters, gathering at the launch of her campaign in the Merrion Hotel (Vegan nibbles only) were almost giddy at the idea of her taking on the misogynist, racist transphobe radio presenter, and delivering a clean killer blow to the Old Ireland. “It’s such a pity HE won’t be on the ballot!” she announced to cheers and jazz hands (Clapping was banned for being too aggressive) from the crowd.

 FG surprised all by not nominating a former Taoiseach and instead a former MEP who was “very good” and instantly forgettable.

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12 facts an Irish Govt TD should make sure their voters know.

1. The size of the total annual national budget.
2. The size of the Oireachtas budget, incl pensions, as a % of that.
3. The size of the Social welfare budget.
4. The total cost of the Government jet.
5. The amount of tax paid in commercial rates by businesses annually.
6. The annual amount of income tax paid by employees of FDI companies.
7. The comparable salary of an NHS nurse and a HSE nurse.
8. The comparable state pension paid in the UK and here.
9. The comparable Dole payment paid in the UK and here.
10. The % of total income tax paid by the top 10% of earners, and the bottom 25% of earners.
11. The highest number of people on trollies in Irish hospitals on a single day.
12. The highest number of people treated by the HSE in a single day.

What if?: The Pro-Life Amendment of 1983: an alternative history.

Wrote this about four years ago.

Please note: this is a work of FICTION.

But for Deputy Martin Faraday, it could all have been so different. The Irish government, pressurised by a politically active Pro Life Campaign (PLC), would still have held a referendum in 1983 to insert an anti-abortion clause into Ireland’s constitution. The 8th amendment to the constitution would still have overwhelmingly passed, declaring that the state would vindicate and defend the right to life of the unborn. Then Ireland would have continued on its “Do as I say, not as I do” way, turning a blind eye to its women leaving the jurisdiction to seek abortions in the UK. The PLC would celebrate their surreal victory as the one pro-life organisation in the world which celebrates not what happens to a foetus, but where it happens. An Irish solution, as it were, to an Irish problem.

The problem, however, was that Martin Faraday was that rare beast in Irish politics, a politician who actually believed what he said. A devout Catholic, the young deputy from Kilkenny was tall, handsome, charismatic, and had led his native county to victory in the GAA hurling championship in 1979. Although socially conservative, Faraday nevertheless had respect on the liberal left for his consistency, speaking out just as strongly on issues of poverty and on opposition to the death penalty. Many spoke of him as a future cabinet minister, perhaps even party leader.

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Traditional Neutrality doesn’t work when you’re fighting Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

blofeldPreviously published in The Times Ireland Edition (2017). 

I was speaking this week to the managing director of a small Irish software company who was just back from the states. He was telling me that he had been attending a technology conference where one speaker had announced that the Third World War was currently being waged. What had struck him, the Irish businessman told me, was that there was a murmur of agreement about the statement. That this was not a shocker to the delegates. It wasn’t even news.

Every day, across the world there are battles going on, between hackers, private companies, state players, criminals and terrorists, with the battlefield being the online systems that run modern life.

You say this to people of a certain vintage and there’s eye-rolling and some remark about watching too much James Bond. But consider that only last month NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre held a gathering in Talinn, Estonia, of nearly 600 experts in the field to discuss the securing of vital infrastructure from cyberattack. If NATO, the world’s preeminent defence organisation is taking the issue seriously, then it needs to be taken seriously by us too.

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The High Risk Voter.

Whatever happens in the French presidential election, there is a reality that will need to be confronted. It’s a phenomenon we have seen in the last two US presidential elections, in the Brexit referendum, and will no doubt be a feature in future elections.
It is the huge danger caused by reckless voters.
Now, let me be clear: this is not your standard Metropolitan Globalist Liberal (of which I am all three) complaining about how disappointed I am about people who don’t share my views, or their level of intelligence or prejudice. I accept that there are many decent people who voted for Trump, Brexit and yes, even Marine Le Pen. People who in many cases did not share the more extreme views of those candidates.
I even accept that there are people, particularly non-urban, low-income and low-educational achievers who vote for candidates I would regard as extremist because they simply feel they are being ignored by the mainstream parties. I get that too., and it may surprise you that I don’t blame them.
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Sinn Fein backs pre-unification Unity Tax.

Mary Lou McDonald TD

The leader of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald TD (Dublin Central), has announced that Sinn Fein will support the creation of a significant levy on all incomes, pensions and social welfare payments ahead of a border poll to create a unification fund.

“It makes sense that given the fact that the north of Ireland will require a significant subsidy from taxpayers in the south, at least in the short to medium term, that we start preparing for this now. By putting aside the funds now, with a gradually increasing Unity Levy we will avoid the sharp tax raises that a sudden British departure would require,” Ms McDonald said in an interview with RTE yesterday.

“I’m confident that in the long-term the economic growth generated by unity will allow the north to pay its way. Sinn Fein in government will introduce this levy to allow us to smooth the way without disrupting public services in the north. When East Germany was integrated into the EU there was some EU support, but the vast majority of funding came from west German taxpayers through a solidarity tax they just stopped paying recently. We need to study that model.”

When asked would all adults be required to contribute, she said that she had no doubt that regardless of income, every patriot would want to play their part and make their contribution.

Questioned about the British taxpayer continuing to meet the financial obligations of the north of Ireland after unification, she pointed out that “we can’t even get the Tories to fund the north when they actually own it, so I wouldn’t be relying on them.”

Beware of nuclear blackmail.

With rational people talking of the possibility of President Putin utilising a chemical or nuclear  weapon in Ukraine, it’s worth having a discussion about how we in Europe and the west generally shall respond to such an event.

First, we have to recognise that it has to be possible to have a discussion about nuclear weapons without falling into Armageddonesque hysterics or into cold Strangeloveian normalisation of what would be a major event in human history.

Consider the following image: the impact of a B61 nuclear bomb (the smallest in the US arsenal) on Dublin if exploded over the GPO.

Would it cause massive devastation, panic, evacuation, economic damage and kill thousands? Yes. Would it end Dublin as a city? The answer is quite simply no. Even with fallout, and a sealed off central zone for decades, Dublin would recover eventually.

If Russia dropped a Tsar Bomba on Ireland, the biggest single bomb ever detonated by Russia, on the middle of the country (Sorry Tullamore) most of Cork, Limerick and Galway city would escape undamaged. The devastation would be immense, and millions would die from the blast and the radiation poisoning, and the presumable collapse of the country as a functioning nation.

The point is that there are different types of nuclear weapons, and a B61 being detonated is different from a Tsar Bomba.

What isn’t different is the psychological effect: the the Russians (or anyone else) have suddenly used a nuclear weapon for the first time since 1945. It becomes the most important story in the world. It is bigger than anything else. People will stop what they are doing in work. Planes will immediately land. Some people will commit suicide.

That’s also what Putin is counting on: the idea that populations in European democracies will be swept up in hysteria and demand their governments immediately acquiesce to whatever he wants to avoid “the end of the world” as he pretends to be (we assume) a madman with nothing to lose. In the only countries that matter in this scenario, the US, UK and France, furious debates will be held as to how to respond. Responding by detonating a comparable weapon against Russian forces in Ukraine is not an option. Nor is detonating a weapon over Russian territory. Therefore, the most likely option would be a massive conventional attack using non-nuclear weapons (Aircraft and cruise missiles) against Russian forces in Ukraine to inflict a high price on Russia for crossing the nuclear threshold without escalation it.

The problem with that is that such a response could, ironically, push Putin further into a corner by a) being attacked directly by NATO forces, and b) by devastating his forces in Ukraine making defeat there far more likely.

This is also against a background where, almost certainly, possibly millions of Europeans will protest demanding their governments abandon Ukraine so as not to provoke further use of nuclear weapons by Putin, the very thing he is hoping.

What if he detonates a second weapon in Ukraine, again of very small yield but nuclear nevertheless? How does NATO respond then? Let us not forget: Putin believes the west is weak. That our people are spineless and obsessed by gender identities and race and celebrity and will buckle when a real man puts his thumb on our collective jugular. That when he shows that he is willing to go further than we are, we will beg him to stop and give him everything he wants.

He may well be right.

What if…Ireland changed its voting system?

There are perennials of Irish political debate, and none more perennial than “We need to get rid of multi-seat constituencies” as the solution to all our political woes. If only we got rid of the “parish pump” competition at local level, we’d get a better standard of TD.

There’s also a growing body in the country who have latched on to the “nobody voted for this coalition government” argument, and are yearning for a British-style election result, where one party (usually) clearly wins regardless of how the actual people of that country actually vote. Nobody may have voted for this government, but they didn’t vote for any other one either.

It’ll never happen, of course. The Irish people have been asked twice before to change the voting system, and have refused for clear reason. PR-STV isn’t going anywhere: in fact, I suspect it would be next to impossible to even get the referendum bill past the Oireachtas, never mind win a referendum. The most a government might get away with is reducing the constituency seats to three seaters, which would hurt small parties and give larger parties a seat bonus.

But even that’s risky: FG/Lab tried the infamous “Tullymander” in the 1977 general election, and it rebounded on them spectacularly giving FF the biggest majority in Irish history.

But if it were to happen, what would be the outcome? It depends on the alternative system. The most popular system on the continent, a list system, where people vote for a party and it fills seats based on the share of the vote it gets from a list of candidates, is unlikely to be accepted here. Most Irish voters wants to vote for an individual.

As a result, the most likely options are First Past The Post (FPTP) or STV in single seat constituencies (also known as the Alternative Vote). Either would be a radical change, but both would have side effects which I suspect would not please advocates of change.

First Past the Post (FPTP) is the simplest voting system on Earth, a point its British advocates make a lot of noise about. Indeed, during the AV referendum in 2011, one of the main arguments used against the Irish electoral system was that it was too complicated for British voters. FPTP involves making a mark against a single candidate, and the most marks win. It allows a party to win a majority of the seats with a minority of the vote and is most likely to deliver a clear single party government even if a majority of the voters didn’t vote for it.  In 2005 it got Tony Blair a 60 seat majority despite 65% of voters not voting for him. Justin Trudeau got the most seats in the last two Canadian elections despite coming second to the Tories in votes. If you like your voting system to just vomit out results with occasionally a tangential link to how actual voters vote, FPTP is the one for you. It’s used in the UK, India, Canada, parts of the US and within some PR systems.

The Alternative Vote is used in Australia and is basically the same system we use in Ireland in presidential elections and  by-elections. It tends to create a de facto two-party system, as small parties rarely win seats, although their preferences do often decide the outcome, unlike FPTP.

Either system would be far less proportional than PRSTV, but it’s worth bearing in mind the role political culture would play hand in hand with either system. In the 1990s, hoping create a new more decisive political culture, Italy introduced FPTP for 75% of the seats in the lower house, with a 25% party list top-up. Whilst it did lead to some consolidation of parties, it also led to parties doing deals to stand down against each other in specific constituencies.

If Ireland switched to a single-seat system under either FPTP or AV, the number of constituencies would jump from 43 large ones currently to 168 much smaller ones (many the size of council wards), most with a nominal sitting deputy. But it would also open up a huge swathe of constituencies for parties that have no seat in them. For Sinn Fein and (probably) Fine Gael this would suit them, assuming they’d lead in many constituencies and would hope for transfers to get to the very high 50%+1 quota (under AV) or just the most votes under FPTP. For smaller parties, and I’m assuming FF in this (rightly or wrongly) there’d be a choice, be also-rans under FPTP or transfer fodder under AV. But there’d be alternatives too.

Under FPTP, FF, Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats, all with sitting TDs, could form a pact and run a single “Alliance” candidate in each constituency, giving them a chance at least. It wouldn’t be easy: all four parties would have members with problems, but FPTP is unforgiving. Get your shit together or see your votes just be ignored, especially as SF and FG would both be telling those parties voters that they were wasting their votes or helping the other big party by voting for the alliance.

AV would offer a similar challenge, although without the vote wastage of FPTP. Given the need to reach 50% of the vote, it’s not impossible that the two big parties might be willing to do a deal with smaller parties, even standing down in some constituencies or promising Seanad seats in return for transfer endorsements. Both would actively need transfers unlike under FPTP. One issue with AV would be the challenge for SF to get transfers even if it has an impressive first preference lead nationally. It’s not impossible that, as happened to FF in the 2011 election, preferences keeping going against SF to the extent (and angry frustration of SF supporters) that SF loses seats narrowly to other parties despite having, in their eyes, clearly “won” the election in terms of having come first in votes.

Interestingly, both systems could seriously hurt the Alphabet Left who would struggle to reach the vote levels requires to come first or meet the quota.

Either system would make a single party government more likely, although AV would require much greater voter consent. Having said that, the backroom dealing that permeates Irish politics could still result in a tiny number of TDs holding even more power than they do now. After all, even if Kerry or Tipp were transformed into multiple single-seat constituencies, would you absolutely rule out Michael Lowry or the Healy-Raes taking some of them?

The Great Low Tax Shoutdown

It’s funny the way a phrase enters the political lexicon. From Garrett Fitzgerald’s “flawed pedigree” to Albert Reynolds’ “that’s women for you”, there’s no guarantee that the meaning of the phrase will remain attached to the original intention of the speaker. The response to Leo Varadkar’s remark about “people who get up early in the morning” was fascinating. People on the Consensus Left commentariat immediately described it as an attack on anyone not working for whatever reason, and Fine Gael basically backed away and if not exactly disowned the remark certainly didn’t nail it to the proverbial political mast.

The funny thing is that, in my experience, there were large sections of the country who agreed with it, and not just the wealthy or professional classes either. They saw it not as an attack on welfare (there’s hardly any anti-welfare vote in any class in this country) but an endorsement of the ordinary workers who pay the taxes that fund everything.

Yet they were basically shouted off the stage by the Consensus Left who are to current political debate what the Catholic lay fanatics were to the state in its first fifty years of existence. I mention the Catholic lay fanatics because I was reminded this week of the disruption of Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars” by Catholic fundamentalists because there was reference to prostitution in the play, and its significance. The shouting down of social reality in a play not because it is a social issue but because the playwright dared to raise it in contravention of the then Catholic consensus.

We are, as a country, incredibly susceptible to groupthink, and the latest concept to be hoisted up before the people as a golden calf to be worshipped is the idea that “nobody wants tax cuts”. Wait and see when I post this on Twitter: I’ll be inundated with people telling me that I’m a Thatcherite neo-liberal (I’m actually more left wing than most of those who attack me. I support property taxes, for one) but more importantly, those attacking will trip over themselves to try to suggest that those advocating tax reduction are a tiny and unrepresentative minority out of step with the majority.

It’s bollocks. Don’t get me wrong: there is a very significant section of the country who will always support increased public spending over tax reduction, and many of them do not benefit from it directly, aside from the No Tax Cuts people who curiously insist upon talking in Take Home Pay terms. But talk to non-political people about politics, and time after time two issues do light up the eyes. The first is that sentences for violent crimes seem to be very light, and the second is that taxes are higher than is fair.

At this point in the debate, I normally get the “I would happily pay higher taxes for better services” people come galloping down the hill. And why not? It’s a very noble position, and perfectly reasonable. I’m not an ideological big government/small government person. Sometimes big government is needed: it wasn’t a sub-contracted private security firm that fought its way up Omaha beach. But the Happily Pay gang are very specific about what they’re against: “You can stick your €5 tax cut!”. But ask them what specifically giving the HSE the extra €100m extra instead of a €5 tax cut will get, in detail, in terms of specific service improvement, and suddenly the charging horde does a Holy Grail and runs away. They don’t like talking value for public spending.

It’s the strangest thing: once the concept of more money is agreed, they lose interest, with little interest in how its spent.

What’s more noticeable is how the centre-right in Ireland have bought the logic, almost apologizing for the idea that Irish workers might keep a little more of their own money. It’s simply wrong. There’s little reason to believe that visible tax reduction is an unpopular concept. After all, its chief opponents are people who will never not vote left anyway.

Having said that, let me bang on once again for the argument that FG should be advocating tax rebates rather than tax cuts. A bit of showmanship here is worth the effort: let the tax payers hold the lump sum cheque in their hands as a tangible example of tax reduction. Indeed, as the next general election approaches, it can be postdated for after the election, so that a new government would have the right to cancel the cheques. Let that be something worth debating in the next party leaders debate.

 

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Time to move the capital out of Dublin?

athlone

Previously published in The Times (Ireland Edition).

Let’s move the capital out of Dublin. Sounds mad, right? If you’re thinking that, well, you’re in good company because my illustrious editor thought the same when I suggested the idea. But hear me out.

Being capital of a country is a prestigious thing. It means hosting parliaments, supreme courts, government buildings, the executive. It brings with it a certain degree of what could best be described as economic welly, with the salaries of members of parliament and their advisors and all their support staff and families, all on good money, being spent locally. It draws in foreign leaders, embassies, lobbyists, demonstrations, and the odd summit. All who need to be housed and fed, and quite a few not too fussy about value because someone else is picking up the tab.

In short, being a national capital is a money spinner.

But here’s the thing: Dublin, like New York, Sydney, Toronto and Johannesburg doesn’t need that sort of money, because it is big enough and economically attractive enough to lure what we really want. Foreign money. Foreign investment. And in that regard, being a capital is almost a hindrance, with many of those people associated with government using up precious space and housing in Dublin but not adding to Dublin by generating new money. Instead, they’re spending our own money which we had in the country in the first place anyway. Dublin wants value added money.

Supposing, instead, we decided to move the capital. Where? That’s up for debate, but I’d suggest building a new town somewhere in the midlands, planned, as Canberra and Brasilia were, for the purpose of being a capital city. A huge project to create a new economic hub, funded by taxpayer money we spend anyway, in a region that actually would feel the benefit from millions in new spending.

A new parliament, supreme court, Department of the Taoiseach, Aras an Uachtaran, a new airport and rail link, new schools, hospitals, embassies, all planned because we would know almost exactly who would move there.

Would it be expensive to build initially? Yes, of course. But consider again the buildings we could free up in Dublin. Indeed, if we were really ambitious, we could move most of RTE out there too, and free up that prime development land in Donnybrook. Leinster House would make a fine hotel, and it’s not like we’re proud of much that has happened in there since independence anyway. After all, the first few Dails didn’t even meet there.

Is it ambitious? Yes, it is, and not without controversy. We’d need a referendum, and it is quite possible that we’d never get it passed not because the country loves Dublin (as every All Ireland proves) but because there’d be war over what county would get it.

Then there’d be another war once the lucky county is designated and the local Down With This Sort Of Thing brigade do a Shell-to-Sea and wail that it’ll bring terrorist attacks and transsexuals or even transsexual terrorists. But it’ll allow us to kill a load of birds with one giant stone made of money. As part of the design, we can put in a state of the art refugee camp, traveller halting site, wind farm, prison, waste incinerator and (if we can get the water) maybe even a nuclear power plant, all as part of the package. No cherry picking. The county gets all this lovely spending or none, take it or leave it.  

We bang on about how much we pay our politicians and how much lobbyists are paid to influence them, so let’s make them all spend their money in a region that needs it. Same with demonstrations. If people want to march on parliament, rather than have them block up the streets of Dublin, let them go to the new capital, where they can march along streets specially designed for demonstrations and buy their cans of Coke and Twixs and sandwiches from local shops glad of the business.

We could even designate a libel-free speakers corner near parliament where you can shout your head off without fear of legal retribution. There’d be a whole stream of axe grinding head-the-balls dying to shout abusive things at passersby and inform their fellow citizens of conspiracies involving the EU and giant lizards. Some people will make the trip just for that.

Yes, it is a very radical proposition, I get that. It would take years to plan, and there is the slightest hint of decentralisation (remember that?) about it. But would it be that bad for our leaders to get away from Dublin with its centre of the universe views? True, the politicians won’t like it. It’s a bit like a political version of the Shannon Stopover, kidnapping them and making them live in Portlaoise. Still, that’ll learn ‘em.

Not convinced? Fair enough. How about we start with a pilot scheme? We could move the Seanad. Sure they’re all just a bunch of jumped up county councillors anyway.

Or we could go for an even more radical proposition. We could move the Seanad around the country like a circus, every week meeting in a different county. The locals would be glad of the business, local schoolkids could be brought down to see the majesty of parliamentary democracy in action, senators could get to wine and dine their county councillor electors, and we could lease the existing Seanad chamber out to turn into something useful.

My money is on a Starbucks.