Labour: a proper republican party?

Alan Kelly: defending the republic?

Let’s be very clear: we are not talking about IF Sinn Fein enter government, but WHEN.

In that context, the decision facing many real republicans in that election will be which party can be trusted to ensure that the republican and democratic values that this country is founded on be defended in a Sinn Fein dominated cabinet?

I believe there is a serious opportunity for Labour here. As a party it is not without criticism, and I have never been short of ammunition to criticise Labour, but I’ll tell you one thing. Within my lifetime memory, from Dick Spring on, Labour’s patriotic credentials have never been in doubt. Nor its commitment to true republican values and a United Ireland where all religions and creeds can claim a home. It has been the party that delivered social liberalism when it wasn’t the mainstream value. It can trace a line right back to 1916 (unlike some) but it has, since independence, always stood firm to the idea that the national question will not be resolved by violence. In the 1970s and 1980s Labour was not found wanting in standing up to the Provos.

So ask yourself this: in your gut, can you trust Alan Kelly to be a minister for justice and defence in a Sinn fein led government, making sure that reforms of the Guards or the judiciary or the Special Criminal Court will be for the benefit of the nation as a whole, and not part of a sinister Erdogan style agenda by a single party?

I think it’s time Alan Kelly start thinking about this, because it could Labour’s defining platform in the next election.

Why are Irish Govts so bad at educating voters?

It’s not true to say that nothing every changes in Irish politics. Those of us who grew up in Ireland in the 1980s are living in essentially a better country with more personal freedom and a greater standard of living.

But there are, nevertheless, some things that seem to go on forever.

Attitudes to taxes and public spending have not changed much. Every single party in the Dail has, as a core value, a hardwired belief among its candidates to go to voters in their parishes and tell them that they will get them better public services or facilities but that someone in another parish will pay for them. There is simply no major link between the taxes we pay and the services we get as a value to be communicated. Indeed, the two functions are so separated that pumping more money into public services (especially the HSE) has become almost a sort of religious mantra, not dissimilar to throwing a virgin into a volcano to assuage the volcano god.

In fairness, Ireland is not unique in this. Politicians promise. That’s what they do. “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the man behind the tree” was a famous political slogan from the 1930s in America, so it is not new. But what is more specific to Ireland is how Irish pols know that it isn’t sustainable. Taxes and borrowing are continuing to rise, and on top of that a new political concept seems to be sweeping the land where more and more voters seem to believe that not only should they get more services at no cost from the state, but they should not be part of the tax base either.

It’s hardly surprising that politicians are afraid to oppose that view. Certainly not opposition ones. But it is remarkable how government ministers and TDs are willing to take responsibility for squaring the impossible circle and with that the unpopularity for not delivering the impossible.

This govt, and govts before it, operates one of the most progressive tax systems in the world. We tax the rich, and to be sure, the not-so-rich and even the I’d-like-to-be-rich-one-day. We pay one of the most generous pensions in the world, including to people who did not contribute much. We pay one of the most generous dole payments in the world. We pay our doctors and nurses better salaries than most countries, all delivered by governments run by FF/FG/Labour/Greens/Democratic Left and the Progressive Democrats.

This government will spend, on health and social welfare alone, more in its five year term than the combined total wealth of Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe.

Yet you wouldn’t know much of this because our collective media and society focusses on stories of individual failure, of which there are many. We hear about the people on trollies on a daily basis (Pre-Covid) but very rarely hear how many people the HSE treats daily?

I blame successive governments for this, for not regarding the education of the voters in a democracy as a vital necessity, as opposed to something we just hope happens.

We’re setting up an Electoral Commission soon. It should be given a mandate and a budget to communicate fact.

I’m not talking propaganda, telling us all what a great job the govt is doing. I’m talking a rolling campaign of fact: who pays tax, and who doesn’t, rich and poor. How many homeless we have, and how homelessness is actually defined. How much we collect in tax, and what we spend it on. How it is spent. How much is spent on wages and pensions.

All fact. Of course, all this assumes that ministers and govt TDs have a) the imagination to do this, and b) can see it is in their interest to do so. A well-informed electorate who sees the connection between tax and spending is a good thing.

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TV Review: Motherland: Fort Salem

“Motherland: Fort Salem” (S1 Disney+/Star Ireland) is not a show I’d normally be interested in. The phrase “Supernatural teens” is, along with “ancient prophecy”, normally guaranteed to have me clicking on. So I approached the pilot episode with some trepidation.

I was wrong. I went through the entire 10 episodes of the first season over a few days, and am fuming that season two is not available, because I really enjoyed it.

M:FS is set in an alternative USA where the Salem witch trials ended in the Salem Accord where the leader of the witches, Sara Alder, agreed that in return for ending persecution against witches, witches would agree to defend the colonies and eventually the United States. 300 years later Alder (the same one. That’s explained later) is still leading the US Army as she has through a changed history and is now leading the fight against the Spree, a group of terrorist witches who….

I’ll better stop here, because it does sound ridiculous. But what really won me over was the level of detail in the witching world. The fact that it’s not all incantations (indeed, some rural witches get mocked by modern witches for using “spells” and the military training the witches go through is all focussed on the use of specific sounds, songs and tones. It’s also a female dominated world: the president is a black woman and all the senior military and frontline soldiers are women. There is an international council of witches based in (where else) The Hague which bans certain practices like mind control.

Although it is focused on the three young witches training in Fort Salem, there’s a very interesting undertone about whether the Spree are right. The non-magical majority accept the witches as the army, and many are grateful, but there is prejudice still on both sides. Many of the original great witching families see themselves as a superior caste.

The breakout character for me is Belgian actress Lyne Renee who plays General Alder. On the one hand, she is the witch that brought peace between humans and witches. On the other hand, she fears a return to the old times and sees the Spree stirring up old hatreds against the witches through some genuinely horrifying terrorist attacks using magic (which I won’t spoil). Her moral ambiguity is all the more powerful given, as she reminds other witches, the burning of witches is not ancient history to her. There’s a hint of the Golda Meir to her.

General Alder leads American forces across the Delaware…

Watching it, I’m reminded of the UK TV series “Ultraviolet”, which dealt with vampires not as supernatural but as a scientifically explainable phenomenon.

Having said that, the witches do nickname military helicopters “bats”. Give “Motherland: Fort Salem” a go.

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?

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: “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.

Should we fill some public offices by lottery?

In the really excellent French political drama “Baron Noir”, which I recently finished watching on Amazon Prime, one candidate for the French presidency advocates a policy of sortition, that is, the filling of public offices not by direct election but by lottery.

It’s not a totally new idea: Athens did something similar back in ye olde day, but on the face of it, it sounds loopy. God knows what we would get into office. Indeed, the biggest opponents to it tend to be convinced that extremes will end up in office, horrible old bigots or commies. It also threatens to leave you with a public body that voters look at and ask “who are those people supposed to represent? Not me!”

Certainly, when I first heard of the idea I thought it was nuts.

I’m not so sure there’s isn’t a role for it now.

Someone recently told me of an industry event they attended where a politician spoke at it, and was so ignorant of the subject in question that some of the attendants started laughing in the middle of the politician’s address. Just to be clear: they weren’t laughing in disagreement: they were laughing because the politician was so badly informed.

I’m not sure it was the politician’s fault: he has a reputation for being a very astute constituency operator. Politican goes Where the Voters Are! Shock Horror!

But it does raise the issue as to whether the skills and indeed personality needed to get elected are actually the same to govern the country reasonably well? Indeed, as a country we are disturbingly comfortable at handing over executive day to day decision-making power to appointed officials from NPHET to City & County Managers to judges.

On top of that, why would you run for office anyway? We’ve seen the abuse people get for running for election. Running for election is very very hard in Ireland. It can be expensive, and incredibly time consuming. Want to improve the quality of live in Dublin City? Don’t run for the council: join it and work your way up. You’ll have more power than most cllrs within five years. A democracy where candidates for political office become a sort of caste apart is not a healthy democracy. We need ordinary people to take part in public decision making.

Now, let’s not go mad. I’m not proposing we replace elections with lotteries. But consider an alternative.

Supposing if every half-term we appointed, say, a fifth of the county council at random by lottery. For a fixed two and a half year term. We’d gender balance it, and any eligible citizen could register, knowing that if they were picked they’d have two and a half years to make arrangements, and would be paid whatever their current salary was. If we applied it to Dublin City Council, it would mean 13 new cllrs appointed every 2.5 years. If it applied to Seanad Eireann, it would mean 12 new senators arriving fresh. Of course, there’d have to be some training, but after that let them at it.

I suggested this once to a party political activist and he actually got red-faced angry at the idea that people were “jumping the queue”. As if the political system was owned primarily by politicians.

But we could get crazy people! Yes, almost certainly. We’d get the odd racist, but also the odd transgender person. We could get some headtheball roaring and shouting about immigration and Travellers. We could also get our first black former asylum seeker citizen looking nervously at her family in the public gallery as she takes her seat in Seanad Eireann. Indeed, one thing we would get more than anything else would be people who never thought they’d ever hold public office in the republic. People who weren’t political insiders. Perhaps an awkward squad who asked awkward questions and made the professional politicians shift awkwardly. All to the good, I say.

But you could end up with some extremist holding the balance of power! Why? They’ll only do that if the other parties don’t cooperate.

They’d serve their two and a half years, and be on their way. Some will milk it, some will be corrupt, and some will be able to speak on legislation because it is what they do in real life. Some may find that the really liked being a senator or county councillor, and run for real. But you would almost certainly have families suddenly finding a senator or councillor in the home where as before it was a different world to them.

It would certainly be interesting to try it on a pilot scheme level, just to measure the public interest. Maybe nobody would register? But bear in mind one thing: it’s not that unusual. After all, we let randomly selected juries have the power to deprive their fellow citizens of their freedom, something more powerful than anything a member of the county council or Seanad Eireann currently does.

FF/FG keep thinking SF are playing by the same old rules.

Erdogan: The Democratic Dictator.

Every now and again you see some FF or FG activist nonchalantly wave away the idea of SF in govt with a “Wait until they have to make decisions”, as if a dose in government for Sinn Fein will reset the political landscape.

FF, FG and Labour all approach government in the same way: say absolutely anything that gets you in the door, and don’t worry if you can’t deliver afterwards. Being in government is the end in itself. Maybe not Labour as much, but definitely the other two.

It’s a lazy assumption because it is based on the idea that SF are just another party like FF and FG, with their fair share of people in politics purely because the rations are good and they’re good with people.

It’s simply not true. Oh sure, there are On The Make Merchants in SF too, fellas who recognised the way the wind was blowing and got onboard early, changing their names to Irish and throwing in the odd cúpla focal. But broadly SF remains a political project with actual goals, primarily the achievement of a United Ireland. FF and FG simply don’t have a goal like that.

Don’t rely on the Venezuela assumption either. SF are not anywhere as left wing as they pretend. Indeed, unlike every other party in Irish politics, they’re the only party going the other way: pretending to be on the economic extreme when in reality their base requires a more balanced approach. Have a read-through of their Wealth Tax proposal, with its bright red cover. It’s not aimed at scaring the propertied classes in Ireland in those avenues of generous foliage. It’s a double feint to convince THEIR OWN BASE that they are far less establishment than they actually are.

Sure, Eoin O’Broin is a genuine leftwinger. But he’s almost for show, the Kate Midleton of SF to show their young air-fist-punchers that they’re being listened to. But not necessarily heeded. SF in the north are not radical Maduroistas. They’re landlords and property developers and small businesspeople and more middle class than in the south. Many would have been in FF. But that doesn’t mean they are as complacent.

President Erdogan of Turkey is the model most likely to be what you get with SF in government. People forget, Erdogan was a reformer and breath of fresh air when he first got in as prime minister. Indeed, he was a model for the west, an Islamic democrat. That didn’t last long, as he went from enemy of the establishment to creating a new establishment based on pro-Erdogan businessmen and Islamic traditionalists. He built a (popular) electoral coalition on true believers (Devout Islamists) and those simply wanting a better standard of living.

SF is building something similar: the Brit-haters along with people who simply want to buy either a house or pay rent that doesn’t feel like they have to sell a kidney to afford it.

Some years a go, a British journalist asked a man in rural Anatolia how he could vote for Erdogan given that he was appointing his cronies to office, replacing judges with party loyalists and shutting down critical media. The man shrugged, and pointed to the new school his daughter went to, and the new clinic his mother got cared for in every week. Both built by Erdogan. What did he care about some liberal secularist mucky-muck in Istanbul getting arrested?

Sinn Fein will be like that: focused on delivery to their base in a way FF/FG simply can’t grasp having spent decades pandering to everyone and never satisfying anyone. Erdogan is hated by 40% of the country, who regard him as a tyrant. SF may well be hated by 40% of the country as they carefully deliver tangible change and benefits to their base. And here’s the scary bit: they will struggle to build any more homes than FF/FG.

But the voters who get those new homes will be left clearly with the impression that it was SF who got them, for them. I wouldn’t be surprised if SF in govt arranges for SF cllrs and TDs to deliver the keys, as FF and FG go ballistic about how outrageous it all is, which will actually harden SF support.

“See,” they’ll say. “Look how angry the old gang get at you getting a new home. They never got that angry at you not having one.”