tag: Election2011



26
Oct 2011

(Who’d want to be) Head of the state we’re in

In a couple of days time, on Thursday October 27th, the citizens of Ireland will make their way back to the polling stations. This time around, however, we won’t vote for a new government (more’s the pity) but for a new Head of State. A new president.

The presidency of Ireland lasts for a term of seven years and can only be held for two terms. Traditionally a president is unopposed should they choose to serve the second term, and historically most presidents have taken that option, remaining in office for the full 14 years. Health permitting, that is… Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was unable to serve his second term as a result of ill health and the fourth president, Erskine Childers, died a year into his first term. Childers was succeeded by Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh who resigned after two years as a result of a series of clashes with the government of the day (it was the beginning of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and Ó Dálaigh was far more militantly republican than the government). Mary Robinson, of course, was offered the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the end of her first term and did not, as a result, take up the option of a second term. All of the others served the maximum 14 years. And our current president, Mary McAleese, has reached the end of her second term, so the post must once again be filled.

Irish Presidential flag

But does it really matter who holds the presidency? Despite being democratically elected, the position is more akin to that of – for example – the Queen of England than it is to that of the President of the United States. It’s a largely ceremonial role and one that offers little room for influencing national policy. Despite the strident claims of one candidate in particular, the president will not be able to prevent a further expansion of European control over Irish social and economic policy… no matter how often the candidate might appear on TV brandishing the Irish constitution like a sword. But more about the individuals in a bit.

For now, let me dig a little deeper into that phrase, “a largely ceremonial role”. Because “largely” does not mean “completely” and the president does have a tiny bit of real power as well as – potentially at least – a fair amount of cultural influence, and therefore indirectly, political influence. The “real” power comes from the fact that the president is required to sign any Bill passed by parliament before it becomes Law. And Article 26 of the Irish Constitution states that the President may – with the exception of national budgets and bills enacting the results of a referendum – refer any bill to the Supreme Court should they feel the Bill “is … repugnant to this Constitution or to any provision thereof.”

Now, while this power has been very rarely exercised, there is a school of thought which suggests that the various laws that led up to the ECB/IMF bailout (including the infamous and disastrous bank guarantee of September 2008) effectively undermined Irish sovereignty and could, therefore, have been interpreted as anti-constitutional. Whether or not the Supreme Court would have agreed with that interpretation is, of course, another thing entirely. But President McAleese could certainly have thrown a spanner in the works back in September 2008 by delaying the bank guarantee. This could have had a massive impact on our recent history (for better or for worse, we’ll obviously never know). That said, there’s another school of thought which suggests that the bank guarantee and subsequent bailout legislation were “Money bills” and were – as a result – immune from presidential referral. However, I believe there is enough room for interpretation on that question to have at least provoked a constitutional crisis should President McAleese have chosen to do so.

Let me stress; all of that is hypothetical. President McAleese has been a fine president and I’m not criticising her here. The social, political and economic landscape was radically different when she was elected 14 years ago and she was certainly not elected to be a political firebrand. Her ambassadorial / ceremonial role was implicit in her presidency and this almost certainly aided her quietly effective social campaigning on issues such as gender equality and sectarianism. As much as I personally would have liked her to do so; had she suddenly decided to attack government economic policy 12 years into her presidency, it would have been with a questionable mandate.

This time around, however, there is at least one candidate openly campaigning with a view to testing just how far a president can go to obstruct government policy. And while I do not – for reasons I will get on to soon – endorse that particular candidate, there’s little doubt that people have the option to cast their vote for a much more “active” president this time round (or not… there are several “won’t rock the boat” candidates in the running too). The Irish Presidency is an office with limited power, yes, but will the people vote for someone who promises to push those limits?

There is another sort of power inherent in the presidency. The power of symbolism. To anyone sceptical of the power of symbols, I suggest you walk into a packed synagogue wearing a swastika armband and see how quickly a symbol can inspire robust action. The effective use of symbols can bring about social change just as quickly as any law. In 1990 Mary Robinson was elected as Ireland’s first female president. Robinson was a woman with the backing of Irish socialists, a woman who as a campaigner had previously spearheaded the law that saw contraception legalised in Ireland and the law that saw women sitting on juries for the first time. It would be naive to suggest that modern Ireland is gender neutral; that women enjoy an equal status within the institutions of power. However, let’s not belittle the progress that has been made, and Mary Robinson’s election as president was a powerful message of just how far the equality agenda had come by 1990. Furthermore, it helped consolidate that agenda and there are two candidates in this coming election whose election could send an equally powerful message on other issues.

The candidates

David NorrisThe first of the two candidates whose election would be powerfully symbolic is independent Senator, David Norris. Norris is openly gay. Now, it’s possible for public figures to be openly gay without that fact playing any part in their public statements or – if a politician – their policy decisions. Norris, however, has championed gay rights in Ireland for most of his life. He was the first openly gay person elected to public office in the country. He founded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, and his 14 year campaign to overthrow the Irish anti-homosexuality law was finally successful in 1988. The election of David Norris to the presidency would be – whatever else it might be – a triumph for gay rights on this island. Just as the election of Mary Robinson in 1990 didn’t make Ireland gender neutral overnight, so the election of Norris wouldn’t signal the end of homophobia. However, it would be a massive symbolic act by the citizenry of this country. And while there is far more to Norris than just his sexual orientation, we should not underestimate the importance of that symbolic act.

Symbols matter. They’re not all that matters. But they do matter.

But of course Norris is far more than just a gay rights campaigner. He’s an academic and Joycean scholar (very much a point in his favour in my eyes). As an independent senator, he was one of the few politicians to vote against the bank guarantee and has steadfastly and consistently criticised the economic policies of the current and last governments. Within the ranks of the political establishment he’s been a lone voice in the wilderness on a whole bunch of issues. He is outspoken, and he’s erudite and humorous with it. At the same time, his ebullient manner and rarified accent does paint him as a bit of an eccentric in the eyes of some.

Norris started the campaign way out in front in the polls. A couple of months ago the media were almost painting him as a sure thing. Since then, however, he’s been hit by a succession of scandals and – if we’re to believe the polls – his support has plummeted. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the negative stories were – in large part – a tabloid campaign to undermine him. Maybe it was just the inherent anti-intellectualism of the tabloid press rather than homophobia. Or maybe it was a bit of both.

That said, he really dug himself into a hole with the “letters for clemency” scandal. It filled the newspapers for a week, yet the sum-total of the factual information that the average Irish person knows about the issue could fit into a single paragraph. It was outright character assassination, and yet another in a long line of new lows for the mainstream media. But it’s also true that Norris handled it far worse than he might have done and managed to spectacularly shoot himself in the foot on the Vincent Browne debate. I’m not going to rake over those old coals, but my take on it is simple enough… just because some members of the public might well be interested in reading the letters, does not make their publication “in The Public Interest”.

Anyway, Norris will be getting my first preference vote. Yes I think he handled the “letters” scandal badly, but it won’t stop me voting for him. He’s the best person for the job.

Michael D. HigginsMy second preference vote will go to Michael D. Higgins. Up until the last few days that wasn’t the case, but recent polls have made up my mind. If Norris isn’t going to be President, then I want my support to transfer to the person most likely to beat Seán Gallagher (about whom, more later).

Higgins is the official candidate of the Irish Labour Party and I’m desperately trying not to hold that against him. Like Norris, he’s also a scholar and an intellectual. A poet on the left fringe of his (rightward-marching) party… kind of like Tony Benn in the years following the establishment of “New” Labour. Higgins voted against the bank guarantee and has, I suspect, been nominated by the Labour Party partly in the hope that he won’t be a thorn in their side as they implement public sector cuts over the next few years. A president who spoke publicly against government policy would be pushing the limits of their office.

And one thing that Michael D. Higgins won’t be, you see, is a president who pushes the limits of the office. He has called for an overhaul of the Irish constitution and has made it very clear that he does not believe the current government (in which his party is a coalition partner) is a force for social justice. He has decried the values of the Celtic Tiger and lambasted the rampant capitalism it brought to Ireland. But he has a very conservative view of the role of the president and seeks to use the office to initiate a “national conversation” on our social and economic values rather than to directly challenge or obstruct the government in any way. A part of him might secretly daydream of using the position of president to overtly forward a socialist agenda, but it’s not something he’d actually do. A Michael D. Higgins presidency will not be remembered as a revolutionary one. Whether or not any president could effectively act upon a revolutionary agenda is highly questionable of course, but Michael D. Higgins won’t be asking that question. And I worry that he may well be an easy man for the government to ignore once they’ve got him safely ensconced in the big house in Phoenix Park.

Still, by and large he’s a man of honour and integrity and if we are to have a “national conversation” about our values, I can’t think of many better men to chair it. Also, if the polls are to be believed, Higgins is currently the only candidate with any chance of beating Seán Gallagher, automatically earning him my transfer.

Martin McGuinnessI considered giving my second preference to the other “highly symbolic” candidate I mentioned. Martin McGuinness. Let me pause to allow some of you a moment to seethe. Even more divisive than the scandal-hit Norris, Martin McGuinness (yes, that Martin McGuinness) is by far and away the most controversial candidate in this presidential campaign. He has come under fire from many in the media, and the entire campaign by the official Fine Gael candidate seems based around McGuinness-bashing. In fact, the reaction he provoked from many quarters in the establishment was – almost as much as any personal or symbolic qualities of the man – partly the reason I considered voting for him. I don’t subscribe to the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but for me it’s definitely an endorsement to have the voices of conservativism raised so stridently against you.

Just as the election of Norris would not eliminate homophobia, the election of McGuinness as President of Ireland would not draw a line under ‘The Troubles’. However, it would be another step away from that dark period of history. There’s no question that the peace process in Northern Ireland was the work of many parties and individuals. It was probably Tony Blair’s finest hour. The same can be said for Bertie Ahern. And the unionists in the north also played a huge part. But I genuinely believe that nobody took a bigger risk (both politically and in a very real “bullet in the head if this doesn’t work” sense) than Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. It was they who convinced the IRA to put down their weapons. They who walked into darkened rooms filled with men carrying guns and told them they were going to make compromises on their behalf. Blair didn’t have to do that. Ahern didn’t have to do that. I seriously doubt any prominent unionist politician had to do that.

So despite the attempts of Fine Gael to belittle his role in making a success of the Good Friday Agreement, I believe that Martin McGuinness is a peace-maker. That he was a man of violence before that…? Yes he was. Peace-makers sometimes are. I abhor what the IRA did and I abhor the actions of McGuinness so far as they were a part of that. The IRA took a legitimate social grievance and turned it into a campaign of violence that lasted a quarter century. I am not someone who claims that violence can never be justified. But bombs in shopping precincts? Fighting tyranny with those tactics is just another form of tyranny.

However, when a man of violence renounces violence. When he goes further and risks his own life to compel others to renounce it. When he goes further still and sits at a table with his sworn enemy and negotiates a truce to bring peace after more than 25 years of shootings and bombings. Then he is no longer a man of violence. And let’s not forget that the mainstream political parties that now attack McGuinness for his IRA membership are themselves a legacy of organisations that today would be defined as terrorists. Éamon de Valera, president between 1959 and 1973, was himself a “man of violence” once. And compared with Martin McGuinness, de Valera did a damn sight less renunciation and peace-making.

Not that McGuinness is the ideal candidate of course. I understand that political campaigns are all about self-promotion, but if I hear him dropping Nelson Mandela’s name once more I think I’ll scream. And while he has every right to campaign on his track record as a peace-maker, he needs to come up with some different sound-bites. Everyone in Ireland has heard McGuinness say “I was able to build a relationship with loyalist leaders Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson” at least 15 times in the past few weeks. It’s an impressive achievement Martin, and it might have secured a vote from me if it wasn’t for Gallagher, but at least vary the wording now and then.

At no stage did I consider voting for any of the other four candidates In fact, I’d happily write a negative number alongside a couple of their names if such a thing were possible. And at the top of that negative list is the official Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell. Thankfully he’s nowhere in the polls so I don’t have to worry about having Mr. Narky as Head of State.

Gay MitchellLet me start by saying that Gay Mitchell really rubs me up the wrong way. On television he comes across as smug, patronising and frankly unlikeable… he may be nothing like that in the flesh, but most of us are only ever going to encounter him in the media. If he had some good ideas or a positive agenda, I could probably overlook his abrasive media personality. But he doesn’t, so I can’t. His outburst at the end of the Pat Kenny debate was bewildering though strangely appropriate.

Not only could the country not expect any substantial action from a Mitchell presidency, I doubt he’d even carry out the ceremonial aspect of the role very well. In parliamentary campaigns where policy issues can create friction between candidates, negative campaigning is generally unedifying but tolerated. But to have such a relentlessly negative campaign for an office like the Irish presidency suggests that Gay Mitchell and Fine Gael have seriously misjudged the mood of the Irish people. At times during the TV debates it honestly felt like Mitchell was in the campaign for no other reason than to attack Martin McGuinness. It was embarrassing.

Mitchell represents the forces of Irish conservatism more than perhaps anyone else in the race. He is the official candidate of the centre-right government currently pandering to the demands of The Market in such a spineless fashion. A government whose robust promises during the general election campaign have evaporated with remarkable speed… and who have dedicated themselves to continuing the disastrous job of the previous administration. A job that involves asset-stripping this nation for the benefit of an international financial system that’s completely out of control. A job that, when complete, will have plunged future generations into a debt they never asked for and from which they have derived little or no benefit.

On top of that though, Mitchell is an Old School Catholic of a kind this country no longer needs. Of course, realising that hardcore Catholicism isn’t a vote-winner any more, he’s played down his links with Rome. In a radio interview he denied he had any connection with the fundamentalist Catholic, anti-abortion organisation, “Dignitatis Humanae Institute”. Yet a spokesman for the organisation appears to contradict this, suggesting that Mitchell co-authored the Institute’s manifesto (the “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity”). Mitchell’s stance on issues like abortion and homosexuality (including gay marriage) are straight out of The Vatican and are not, in my view, worthy of the Head of State of a modern nation.

Sean GallagherAnother candidate to whom I’d give a negative vote if such a thing were possible, is independent candidate Seán Gallagher. Unlike Gay Mitchell, who represents Ireland as it was a few decades ago – caught in the terrible grip of a Church that had long since lost its soul – Gallagher represents the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger. And I’m genuinely not sure which is worse. Certainly neither would gain my vote.

Gallagher is that ultimate symbol of modern consumer capitalism, the “celebrity entrepreneur”. Young, over-confident to the point of arrogance, and constantly insisting that his track-record of financial success somehow automatically translates to success as a president, Gallagher is a product of an unholy union between Fianna Fáil and The Dragon’s Den. Until a few months ago Gallagher was a member of a political party that spectacularly misused their decade of power and left this country stricken for generations to come. He wisely severed all official ties with that party before announcing his candidacy, so that he could run as an independent. But frankly I’ve yet to hear a single thing from Gallagher that suggests independence of thought.

Instead he regularly trots out the clichés of the modern capitalist. As a “dragon” on the Irish version of Dragon’s Den, Gallagher has sat, week after week, and dangled his piles of cash in front of desperate people before cruelly yanking it away in the name of televisual entertainment. He talks about business and entrepreneurship in the same way a priest talks about God. It’s the reason for living. It’s the salvation of the nation. It is unquestionably a good thing. It will save us all.

It was the mantra of modern capitalism that got Ireland into the mess it’s currently in, and Gallagher hopes to carry that mantra with him as Head of this damaged State. The man marries reality television with a grasping free-market ideology. He pays lip-service to social justice while revelling in the inequities of market capitalism. Were he to become our next president, it would be almost as depressing a decision by the Irish electorate as their selection of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. More than that, I honestly feel it would haunt us over the next 7 years. The Celtic Tiger is dead. It was never more than a sick joke in the first place. But now the corpse is starting to stink. The Celtic Tiger is never coming back and although people may agree with you when you say that to them, I’m not sure it has really sunk in yet. But it will do. And when it does, having a Tiger Cub like Gallagher as president could end up being a national embarrassment.

Yet he’s way out in front in the polls. Perhaps the implosion on the Pat Kenny debate a couple of nights ago will affect his turnout… are people really already prepared to forgive Fianna Fáil? More than that, to once again embrace the brown envelope culture that pervaded them? Dear God, I hope not.

Mary DavisAlso running as an independent candidate is Mary Davis. I don’t have much to say about her. Mostly because she’s kept rigidly to a rather limited script during the campaign, and relatively speaking the tabloids haven’t had a massive go at her. Despite being an “independent”, Mary Davis is almost as much an establishment insider as Mitchell, Gallagher or Michael D. Her main claim to fame is the fact that she headed the Special Olympics committee during what’s been acknowledged as a very successful Special Olympics held in Ireland a few years back. She insists – perhaps with some justification – that this experience would be invaluable for an international ambassadorial role like the presidency.

However I was mystified by her apparent eagerness early in the campaign to constantly remind the media about the various “boards” she has been appointed to over the past few years; earning large amounts of money for a handful of meetings. Over the past 6 years she earned €150,000 sitting on the board of a bank and a building society. Given the disastrous track-record of Irish banks and building societies during that period, her only defence seems to be that the position she occupied involved no actual power or responsibility. Either she was part of the banking establishment during the run up to the crash, or else she was drawing a handsome salary from the banks for doing very little. This was bound to alienate a hell of a lot of people, and I don’t think her campaign ever recovered.

During that same period of time she earned over €85k for sitting on the board of the Dublin Airport Authority (but presumably bears no responsibility for the various screw-ups during the design and construction of Terminal 2). She earned over €35k for sitting on the board of the Broadcast Commission of Ireland (BCI), and while her working relationship with Irish media-magnate Denis O’Brien has generated a few column inches in the papers, it’s never erupted into a full-blown scandal. O’Brien is chairman of the Special Olympics Ireland Council of Patrons and worked with Davis on the Special Olympics in 2004. He is a contributor to her campaign. And whenever the BCI was voting on whether or not it was appropriate for O’Brien to expand his ownership of Irish media, Mary Davis always voted in his favour. Another case of the mutual back-scratching of the establishment. Nobody seems surprised, let alone outraged.

Though of course, her position in the polls has never been good and it’ll be a small miracle if she gets 10% of first preference votes. So while Ireland does look willing to elect one business-as-usual insider claiming to be independent; it’s not this one.

Dana Rosemary ScallonAnd last but by no means least is Dana Rosemary Scallon. While I shan’t be voting for Dana, unlike either Gallagher or Davis, she at least merits the label of “independent” candidate. Well, in a political sense anyway; her ties to the Catholic Church rob her of total independence. But as far as party politics go, Dana is equally dismissive of the lot of them, and while she has been an independent MEP, there’s no way she could be described as an establishment insider.

Originally coming to prominence when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 (with the massive worldwide hit, All Kinds of Everything) Dana subsequently went on to have a relatively – if mystifyingly – successful career in music. In the early 80s she broke into the American Christian Music market in a big way, which as it turns out, is a big market.

She ran for president 14 years ago and has also served as an MEP so is not a complete novice to campaigning, though there were times she gave that impression. She had a meltdown on the Prime Time debate and her early campaign appearances in which she constantly brandished a copy of the Constitution made her easy to caricature. Like Mitchell, her ties to the Church make her a somewhat “unfashionable” candidate in a country that is not quite done with its anti-Catholic backlash.

Her TV meltdown related to yet another tabloid scandal (a story about someone in her family) which again revealed the Stygian depths to which the media will stoop to package and sell sensation. The case is something that should be handled by the family and by the legal system; the glare of the media helps absolutely nobody and risks making the situation even worse for everyone. And there is absolutely no public interest served by running the story unless Dana was implicated in any wrong-doing (which she wasn’t). But hey, if it helps sell copies of The Irish Sun who cares if it’s poisoning our culture? Right?

Anyway, Dana is polling in last place and has been for some time. The tabloids didn’t rob her of support as she never really seemed to have much… but they did make it more difficult for her gain any. Still, she didn’t do herself many favours either. Her strident claims that she would single-handedly wrest our sovereignty back from Europe – at least that was the message she appeared to be conveying – mostly had the effect of demonstrating that she didn’t actually understand the role of the President. McGuinness and Norris might be willing to test the limits of the office, but Dana gave the impression that she didn’t know there were any. On top of that, her calm insistence that the Seal of the Confessional trumps national law and is enshrined by the freedom of religion clauses in the constitution, made her sound like a religious extremist in the Vincent Browne debate.

And there you have it

So those are the seven choices we’re faced with on Thursday. Norris would be by far the best president in my view, but seems unlikely to win. Gallagher looks like he’s heading for a victory, which would surely demonstrate – in the words of David Norris – that the Irish people “haven’t learnt much” from the recent economic disaster. We can only hope that Michael D. Higgins will gain enough second preference votes to pip Gallagher to the post.

Also on Thursday we have a couple of referenda (I’ll be voting ‘No’ on each*) and a by-election, though not in my constituency. There’s definitely a strangeness about the fact that at a time when momentous choices need to be made about the path our society takes into the future, we’re being offered a vote on a largely ceremonial position. Then again, we recently had a general election and the public voted for the current government…

… maybe it’s not such a good idea for us to be making important decisions.

* While I support the notion of Dáil Inquries in principle, constitutional experts have stated that the amendment is badly worded and ill-thought out. And regarding judges pay… yes, they probably get paid too much. But there’s actually a small number of them so the total economic impact is small, whereas there are potential problems with turning their salaries into a future political football… if it undermines the separation of judiciary and legislature even a little bit, it’s not worth the money saved.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


3
Mar 2011

An aggressive response to tyranny

Over in the UK the climate and energy secretary, Chris Huhne, has given a speech in which he warns of a “possible 1970s-style oil shock“. Meanwhile here in Ireland, as Labour and Fine Gael continue their coalition negotiations, rising oil prices look certain to provide the new government with its first serious challenge, even as the IMF/EU “bail-out” drags us into bankruptcy.

On the subject of the “bail-out”, German chancellor Angela Merkel insisted a couple of days ago that there was little room for renegotiation. There’s a hint that interest rates might be reduced very slightly, but it would be a token gesture and one that will have no real impact on Ireland’s future (though you can bet that Enda Kenny will be hailing it as a massive success… it’ll be his “Peace In Our Time” moment and it’ll happen right at the start of his leadership). Instead, the financial institutions of Europe, backed by the most powerful governments, are demanding that the Irish people pay for the reckless behaviour of private institutions over which they had no control. It’s beyond the merely unjust and enters the territory of tyranny. An aggressive response isn’t merely appropriate, it is damn near obligatory.

But what should that response be?

The first thing that should be done is the Irish Central Bank should begin printing large numbers of new banknotes. Or rather, old ones… the Irish punt. These should be held in reserve in the event we need them. The government should then send a negotiating team to Strasbourg, Paris and Frankfurt and explain that the Irish people will not accept the tyranny being imposed upon them. We have run up a large sovereign debt and will repay that, as we should. However, we simply refuse to force private debt onto public shoulders. The choice then lies with Europe…

Capitalism

They can accept our position, in which case Ireland will endeavour to reduce the public deficit — which will still involve hardship for the Irish people, no question about it — and repay the sovereign debt in euros. Meanwhile the institutions of capitalism which made disastrous bets on the Irish property boom will have to accept their losses. As is morally and legally right.

Or they can reject our position; in which case we will unilaterally default on the bank debt anyway, and repay our sovereign debt in punts.

I’m not suggesting that the transition out of the euro would be painless. Far from it. It would be bumpy and involve a hell of a lot of obstacles. But I genuinely believe that the alternative — accepting the legitimacy of transferring private debt into the public domain — will be far worse. I also believe, were we to adopt the aggressive position I suggest (a position that merely mirrors the tyrannical position being adopted by Europe towards us, let us not forget) there’s a better than average chance that Europe will acquiesce to our demands. A unilateral decision to default on the debt and pull out of Europe will ultimately, especially in these rather skittish times, do plenty of damage to the European project, as well as to Ireland.

Again, let me stress that I take no pleasure in suggesting this course of action. If you’ve read my piece on The Maastricht Treaty, you’ll know that I am very much in favour of the spirit of the European Project. But it also seems to me that so long as Europe is being run in the interests of financial institutions rather than the citizenry that an oppositional stance is required.

And the oil price?

Ah yes, the added wrinkle. The price of oil is on an upward trajectory again. Instability in the Middle East and North Africa is certainly contributing to this, but that’s far from being the whole story. The truth about exaggerated reserves in OPEC nations is finally beginning to filter out, while other countries are also seeing a faster than expected fall in both reserves and production capacity. On top of that (and not entirely unrelated to it), global food prices have now reached record highs.

Both of these developments suggest a clear strategy for the incoming Irish government who will simply not be able to rely upon the economic growth forecasts it is basing its already absurdly optimistic figures on. Firstly, the Irish agriculture sector needs to be expanded. This should not be rocket science for a country that was primarily agricultural up until very recently. Given that rising oil prices will make the mechanisation of farming more expensive, farmers should be given incentives (perhaps in the form of employer tax breaks) to hire additional labour.

At the same time, significant incentives should be provided to companies to set up wind and wave energy projects. These incentives could include things like employer tax breaks (again) and even tax-free profits for the first year after the farm repays its set up cost. On the one hand, yes, this would be loss to the treasury (though I prefer to see it as a non-upfront investment in the project) but the gains — in terms of employment / getting people off the dole and training them, plus the long-term advantages to the national infrastructure — will more than pay for this.

Our government should be doing all of this, as well as announcing a national emergency strategy that is ambitious and infused with real vision. It should commit itself to an Ireland that can feed and power itself, without recourse to imports, by the time it leaves office. Which is definitely not to say that Ireland should be looking to remove itself from global trade. Merely that Ireland should accept that in a world where the global markets in food and energy resources have become impossibly volatile and are likely to put even the wealthiest nations under strain, that as a small, fertile, sparsely-populated island we are in an almost unique position to take control of our own destiny. And far from trying to weather the approaching storm, we should be looking to disembark the leaky ship of international capitalism and take shelter before it hits.

Of course, our government hasn’t got the intelligence, the vision or — let’s face it — the balls to pursue such plans. Will the next one? I can only hope so.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


27
Feb 2011

The contempt in politics

With 154 of the 166 seats filled and only three constituencies still counting, the results are pretty much in at this stage. Based on the the exclusions that have already happened in those three constituencies it now seems certain that Fine Gael will end up with 75 or 76 seats. This means they’ll be at least 7 seats short of an overall majority. Fianna Fáil will likely finish with 19 seats (though have an outside chance of 20), which represents the most dramatic collapse in their support in Irish history. The party of De Valera — the party of the Irish establishment — has been effectively wiped out in Dublin (retaining a single seat in the commuter belt) and beaten into a very distant third place nationally, with Labour returning perhaps twice as many TDs (they’re neck-and-neck with independent candidates in a couple of counts as I write this, but they’ll end up with between 36 and 38). The Greens have been entirely removed from national politics in Ireland. They failed to secure election for a single candidate and my prediction – soon after they joined the last government – that they’d “end up as little more than Fianna Fáil’s new scapegoat” seems to have been reasonably correct. Certainly, Fianna Fáil didn’t escape damage by using them as a scapegoat, but the Greens have clearly suffered a similar fate to the PDs, who were the last party to get savaged by the electorate as a result of joining FF at the top table.

Enda Kenny Poster - Thanks, Suckers

It’s worth making the point that I’m far from happy at what’s happened to the Green Party. On the one hand, the individuals who helped prop up such a disastrous Fianna Fáil administration certainly did not deserve to be returned to the Dáil. On the other hand, the wider environmental movement in Ireland can’t help but be harmed by what’s happened.

With regards to the other parties and groupings, there’s part of me that acknowledges that Sinn Féin and the other genuinely left wing candidates have done well relative to their position prior to the election. But there’s also a (probably bigger) part of me that wonders why they didn’t do even better. Given the current situation Ireland finds itself in, the left should arguably have been able to carve out a much bigger place for itself. Sinn Féin will probably end up with 15 seats, a trebling of their current representation. While at the same time, there will probably be at least 8 or 9 other left TDs in the guise of 2 from The Socialist Party, 2 from the People Before Profit Alliance plus a handful of left wing independents. It’s questionable whether they’d be able to work harmoniously enough with Sinn Féin to form a strong alliance, but if they managed it, they could end up as the the official opposition. Which would be a good thing for the country.

Of course, it’s still not absolutely certain that the next government will be a Fine Gael / Labour coalition. There may be enough independents willing to prop up a minority Fine Gael government to save Enda Kenny from having to give away precious cabinet seats to Labour and ensure he doesn’t have to compromise in any policy areas. On the other hand, Fine Gael may well want the security of a large majority (it would be the largest majority in the history of the state were they to form a coalition). Though given the possibility of economic disaster and the internal strains that might create, Kenny could also be concerned about Labour pulling their support when the going got tough, rather than risk the fate of the Greens. I wouldn’t like to predict how that’ll turn out; and neither a minority Fine Gael government nor a FG/Lab coalition would surprise me.

Such contempt

Now that the campaign is over, however, and before we know the final outcome one way or the other, I’d like to make a couple of observations about the last few weeks. About the way the media dealt with the situation, and the way the political parties dealt with the public. While I’ll be making specific reference to Irish politicians and issues, be very clear that these are general and widespread problems that affect modern politics the world over (or at least, in countries that are ostensibly “democracies”).

From my perspective, one of the most frustrating things about the recent election campaign was the ham-fisted media management engaged in by the political parties. This was far and away most prevalent in the Fine Gael camp where their party leader was wrapped in cotton-wool and effectively insulated from potentially antagonistic interviewers.

The most famous example, of course, was his point-blank refusal to take place in the first leaders debate because it was to be chaired by Vincent Browne. In September of last year Browne suggested that the best thing Kenny could do for Ireland would be to “go into a dark room with a revolver and a bottle of whiskey”. A week later, after an outraged reaction from Fine Gael and suicide victim support groups, Browne issued a comprehensive on-air apology. Five months later, in the midst of arguably the most important election campaign in the history of the nation, Enda Kenny seized on that grudge to avoid being questioned before the Irish public.

It was political cowardice. And it demonstrated a contempt for the Irish electorate that he would compound time and again over the next few weeks. It also suggests that Kenny just doesn’t have what it takes to lead a nation in a time of crisis. If he petulantly refuses to talk to someone for a 5-month old slight that’s been apologised for, will he be on speaking terms with anyone outside his party in a couple of years? Because frankly, he’s going to have much worse said about him in the months to come.

Kenny’s strategy appeared to be “say as little as possible and try to look superior”. Bizarrely, when questioned on his policies in the midst of the campaign, he consistently refused to elaborate and instead referred the interviewer (and by extension, the Irish people) to the Fine Gael website. This became so prevalent that it became a point of satire. Opposition politicians (including the Fianna Fáil leader) would often refer to Fine Gael policy by intoning “double-yew double-yew double-yew dot fine gael dot i e”.

The first thing to point out about Enda Kenny’s strategy is that the most recent statistics suggest that 34.2% of Irish people do not use / have access to the internet. That no interviewer challenged him on this fact is a disgrace (you can be bloody sure that Vincent Browne would have!) They were letting Kenny express open contempt for more than a third of the population without drawing any attention to it. The other point to make is that by allowing Kenny to effectively ignore questions about policy detail, the “friendly” media figures he’d allowed to interview him were actively helping Fine Gael be elected. It’s a travesty and RTÉ should be investigated for such craven complicity.

It’s also worth pointing out that Fine Gael’s website doesn’t actually carry the kind of policy detail that Kenny insisted was there. It just doesn’t. The much-vaunted 5-point-plan wasn’t a plan at all. It was five bloody aspirations. Nothing more. “Get Ireland working again” isn’t a plan! Dear God, do they think we’re fools?

Actually yes. They clearly do. And by awarding Fine Gael almost 50% of the seats in the Dáil, the Irish people appear eager to vindicate that opinion.

It should be noted that the majority of people in the media didn’t hold the other parties to much greater account, but the media strategy of the others didn’t involve quite so much overt evasion. Well, not this time. I suspect during the next election, the others will have learnt a lesson or two from Fine Gael and our national broadcaster will have played a large part in ushering in a glorious new era where politicians cherry-pick their media appearances so that they only ever get interviewed by people prepared to lob softballs in their direction and show them in a positive light. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t leave so many people in the dark.

The ‘No Plan B’ issue

There’s another thing I really want to get off my chest, because it’s frustrated me ever since I started taking notice of politicians. It happens in every election campaign I’ve watched, whether in Ireland, the UK or elsewhere. It’s the point-blank refusal of political candidates to respond to “hypothetical questions”. Sometimes it reaches surreal proportions. A question is asked… “Candidate Joe Bloggs, if your party gets into power will you implement Policy A?” To which the response is… “Well, the election is still some weeks away and it’s up to the people to decide who is in power or not. I’m certainly not going to presume anything at this stage. In fact, I think it would be dreadfully wrong for anyone to be so presumptuous as to assume to know which way the people will vote!” A tenacious interviewer will object… “but Candidate Joe, I asked if you get into power” only to be interrupted… “I can’t answer hypothetical questions”.

Now, obviously that’s an exaggeration, but I suspect everyone reading this recognises the pattern.

In this recent campaign, it was used time and again (by all parties except those on the left, who were very up front indeed on the issue) regarding the IMF/EU “bail out” and the obscenity of the debt transfer. It was a very simple question, and probably the single most important one during this entire campaign. That anyone cast a vote in favour of a party that refused to answer it is utterly scandalous. Yet most of us did. The question goes something like this…

Right now, pretty much everyone accepts that, when combined, the bank debt and sovereign debt will simply bankrupt this country. Nobody sane believes we are capable of bearing such a massive burden. It will crush Ireland. Every party is determined to renegotiate the terms of the deal that saddled us with the bank debt, as well as the levels of interest we must pay on the funds made available to us in the “bail out”. However, if the negotiations do not reduce the burden to a sustainable level, what then? What is Plan B?

The left has a simple response… we default on the bank debt while honouring our sovereign debt and restructuring the economy in such a way as to repay it. At that point, you can argue back and forth about the merits of default, or the details of restructuring. You agree or disagree with the proposal.

But Fianna Fáil, Labour, Fine Gael and even the Greens all refused to answer the question. “The negotiations have not happened yet”, they tell us. “The stress tests on the banking system won’t be complete until the end of March”, they tell us. “it would be wrong to presume the outcome of the negotiations / stress tests”, they insist.

I wanted an interviewer — just one of them! — to bellow into their complacent faces “No it damn well wouldn’t be wrong! In fact, it’s your job to presume! We want a government that already has answers to the obvious hypothetical situations, not one just making it up as they go along. Any fricking idiot can do that! Is that what you are? A fricking idiot!!?”

In fact, I’d want the interviewer to use even more exclamation points and italics than that.

How are these fools and charlatans allowed to get away with either not having plans for critical potential situations, or else not telling the electorate what those plans are, so that we can vote in an informed manner? It’s not democracy if the agenda is hidden.


UPDATE: The Jim Bliss 5-Point Plan for Recovery

  1. Free jet-packs for everyone
  2. Top grades for every child in school
  3. A cure for cancer
  4. The winning lottery numbers mailed to every home the day before the draw
  5. Get Ireland Working!

Vote Jim Bliss in 2014. I guarantee nobody has a better 5-point plan.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


25
Feb 2011

Something for the (election) weekend

In honour of the most important election in recent Irish history…

… stealing all our dreams…

Found out this morning
There’s a circus coming to town
They drive in Cadillacs
Using walkie-talkies, and the Secret Service

Their big top: Imitation of life
And all the flags and microphones
They have to cover our eyes

We play the sideshows
And we like the tunnel of love
And when we ride the ferris wheel
We’re little children again

And when they’re asking for volunteers
We’ll be the first ones aboard
And when the ringmaster calls our names
We’ll be the first ones to go… to sleep

Stealing all our dreams
Dreams for sale
They sell ‘em back to you

On with the show
Start the parade
We sang along
Sweep us away

It’s political party time
Going down, going down
And the celebrities all come out
Coming down, coming down, coming…

The sun is going down
And the dogs are starting to howl
We stay out after dark
Eating cotton candy
And the music’s playing…

How we all laughed!
We split our sides
The cameras flashed
We almost died!

The rain’s gonna pour on down, falling out of the sky
Coming down, coming down
And the celebrities all run out, and the rain’s
Coming down, coming down

Gonna rain,
Gonna rain, gonna rain
Gonna rain, gonna rain,
Rain, rain
Rain, rain

And now I wonder who’s boss
And who he’s leavin’ behind?

Talking Heads: The Democratic Circus

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24
Feb 2011

Election 2011: Because real change is too much to expect

Tomorrow, the country goes to the polls. Finally! The election campaign feels like it’s been going on for about a year, which would have been draining even if the candidates had anything interesting or illuminating to say. But of course, they didn’t. They spent their time filling the airwaves with words aimed at obscuring their policies and the issues facing the country. The three main party leaders argued with apparent passion about policy differences so slight as to be essentially insignificant. And they joined forces to pour scorn on any alternative to their crony-capitalism whenever it raised its head. It speaks volumes that given a straight choice between the current government (who facilitated the capitalist smash-and-grab that has been perpetrated upon Ireland) and their likely successor, led by Enda Kenny — a man who whenever he’s questioned on policy in public tells the people to log onto their website (you can almost see the contempt dripping from his lips) — I’d probably leave the old lot in power.

Seriously. That’s how bad the situation is.

But of course, that’s not the choice facing the country. If opinion polls are to be believed (and they’ve all been remarkably consistent), Fianna Fáil will experience complete electoral meltdown. Remarkably, they are not running enough candidates to gain an overall majority even if every single one of them were elected. That’s pretty mind-boggling. Imagine a UK general election where the Labour party only fielded 290 candidates. Or a US congressional election where the Democrats fielded 194. It’s less an admission of defeat as it is an active refusal to be in power. De Valera must be turning in his grave. Though of course, Fianna Fáil exorcised the spirit of De Valera from their party the moment they placed the interests of private financial institutions above the interests of Irish citizens. Whatever his faults (and he had many) Dev would never have done that. In fact, he’d probably have had any finance minister who proposed such a move tried for treason.

In fairness to Fine Gael, they’ve always had more of a pro-capitalist outlook than Fianna Fáil, even before the Celtic Tiger got its claws into Bertie. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Irish people seem to be turning to them to get us out of a crisis caused by the failure of international capitalism. Ultimately the story of this election will be the astonishing failure of the left wing parties to take advantage of this failure. A member of the United Left Alliance interviewed on Vincent Browne’s show last night appeared proud to predict his alliance would gain between 4 and 8 seats. Browne was incredulous. As, quite frankly, am I. When the vice-like grip of international capital begins choking the life out of a country, why aren’t the socialist left confidently predicting 40 to 80 seats!? How have they failed to capitalise (pun intended) on this situation? Even Sinn Féin, a left wing party hampered by the fact that half the country will never vote for them for historical reasons, appear likely to do better than the ULA.

The argument is that the Irish population is inherently conservative. That despite claiming they want change, they’re actually too scared of it to do anything other than prop up the existing establishment. It’s depressing, and frankly, if they elect a Fine Gael majority government, they are essentially stating — unambiguously — that they are happy with the way the country was governed during the past few years. It’s just bizarre. I have heard people say that they wouldn’t want to take a risk with the left… that the left might bankrupt the country. As though a nation of less than 5 million people can take on a hundred billion euro of private gambling debt and not already be bankrupt. It’s an insane perspective, but one that seems prevalent.

We can only hope that the opinion polls are wrong. That Fine Gael get nowhere near an overall majority and are consequently forced to water down their savage policies to appease a coalition partner. That the left parties gain far more seats than they expect. That whoever is in government realises that forcing the Irish people to pay off debts they didn’t run up is both morally wrong and logistically impossible. That come Saturday night, we have a government that will place the interests of the Irish people above the interests of financial institutions… a government for whom the phrase “we must all share the burden” doesn’t automatically have an unspoken “except the very wealthy” tagged on the end.

Anyway, it’ll all be over soon. The election’s tomorrow. The count’s on Saturday. If Fine Gael get an overall majority, we’ll know the outcome by Saturday night. If they need a coalition partner, it’ll be the middle of next week. After that, I’ll ease off on the rants about Irish politics and return to rants about sustainability and the occasional music review. I suspect my regular readers will be happy about that.

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23
Feb 2011

Dear internet, who should I vote for?

In these digital days, no election would be complete without an online application advising us how to vote. Just such an application has been launched over at Votomatic.ie. By posing a relatively small number of policy questions, the application compares your responses to the policies of the main parties and tells you which party comes closest to your views.

Votomatic

To be honest, it’s got a couple of serious flaws which mean voters should beware of taking the final answer too seriously. For a start, the Socialist Party / United Left Alliance is not represented in the outcome. Sinn Féin occupies the position furthest to the left, and because there are large numbers of people who will never vote Sinn Féin for non-policy reasons, the failure to include the socialist left in the outcome will result in those people getting Labour in second-place, despite them having very little socialism left in their veins.

The other major flaw — and it’s one shared by all of these “who should I vote for?” applications — is the limited number of questions asked. And this is further compounded (albeit unsurprisingly) by the high proportion of those few questions that deal with the debt crisis. Yes, it’s by far the biggest issue facing the country today, but given that four of the five parties listed in this survey have damn-near identical policies on the issue, it’s difficult to see why such a high number of questions should be devoted to it. The survey seems intent upon finding that tiny sliver of difference between the main party policies and trying to locate the respondent on one side or the other. Which is a total waste of time… if you think Ireland should renegotiate the disastrous IMF/EU deal with the “default option” firmly on the table… indeed with that as our starting position, then congratulations on your sanity… vote Sinn Féin / Socialist. On the other hand, if you think Ireland should enter those negotiations with the view that the stability of the European financial system is more important than the morality of this obscene debt transfer… then it makes sod all difference which of the other parties you vote for.

None of the mainstream parties (and sadly I include the Greens in this) seem willing to make it clear that the transfer of private gambling losses incurred by large financial institutions, both Irish and non-Irish (for that is what the bank debts are) is wrong. Therefore, we simply won’t be doing it. What we will do, is work with our European partners to ensure that the systemic instability produced by this crisis is minimised. We’ll do everything in our power to achieve this, but we draw a line at lumbering future generations with a massive debt generated by the reckless speculation of private capitalists.

Anyway, having taken the survey and bearing in mind the exclusion of the socialists, my outcome was unsurprising… You are a hardcore Sinn Féin supporter.

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23
Feb 2011

Two economics degrees?

Tonight with Vincent Browne has produced some great moments over the past few weeks. One of which came a couple of nights ago when Vincent had a group of non-aligned candidates on the show to discuss the potential role that Independent TDs might play in the next Dáil. One of these candidates was Nick Crawford, standing in the Dun Laoghaire constituency.

When Browne asked Crawford what he’d bring to parliament, he responded by claiming to have “buckets of business experience, buckets of common sense, I’ve two economics degrees…” At which point Browne interjected with a hint of incredulity, “two economics degrees?” Crawford nodded, “two economics degrees”, he confirmed, “one from UCD, one from DIT”… The camera cut to Vincent Browne who muttered, “my God… that’s quite a disability for starters, isn’t it?”

Yes, this election will see the people place their faith in a party with no ideas led by a man with no vision. But at least we have Vincent Browne to help keep us sane. In such cloudy weather, we must seek silver linings wherever they can be found.

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21
Feb 2011

Vincent Browne for Taoiseach

No. Not really. Though he’d certainly do a better job than any of the main party leaders. Plus it’d almost certainly force Enda Kenny to flee the country, so it’d be worth it on that basis alone.

It’s less than week now until Ireland goes to the polls and elects a Fine Gael government to dig the nation further into the hole left to us by Fianna Fáil. It’s a mess of a situation and the only question left to be answered is whether or not Enda Kenny’s visionless crew will secure enough seats to win an absolute majority (heaven help us!) or will need to form a coalition. For most of the election campaign a Fine Gael Labour coalition looked certain, with Labour’s gains being significant enough to give them plenty of influence over policy. As February 25th approaches though, they’ve lost a lot of ground and — if current opinion polls are to be believed — Fine Gael could win a big enough share of the vote to form a majority government with the backing of a handful of independents.

The reason for Fine Gael’s meteoric rise in the polls is difficult to fathom. Or rather, it’s difficult to fathom if you assume an even vaguely sensible electorate. The consensus seems to be that a) Ireland has adopted a two-party mindset… because Fianna Fáil got us into this mess, Fine Gael will get us out, and b) the electorate wants a stable government… the compromise of coalition is undesirable at a time of national crisis such as this.

Of course, even a cursory examination of these two conclusions reveals them to be nonsense of the highest order.

a) Yes, Fianna Fáil got us into this mess. But they did so during a period when there were no significant policy differences between themselves and Fine Gael. In fact, while in opposition, Enda Kenny’s party were complaining that Fianna Fáil’s tax cuts and regulatory light-touch didn’t go far enough. Both parties are essentially centre-right adherents to free-market capitalism. If anything, Fine Gael are slightly further to the right than Fianna Fáil ever were and the criticism they have been levelling at Fianna Fáil during this election campaign should leave any sensible person with a taste of bile in their mouth. Certainly the disastrous government of the last decade and a half merits criticism, but when that criticism comes from a party that would have done exactly the same thing it’s just embarrassing.

b) If people think that what the country needs is a single-party stable majority government, they appear to be forgetting that it was a single-party stable majority government that created this mess in the first place. Well, in all but name. Yes, Fianna Fáil had the Progressive Democrats as junior partners for much of their recent rule. And they had the Greens for the past three years. But the PDs were mostly ex-Fianna Fáil who left the party due to a clash of personalities with a long gone leader. They were Fianna Fáil through-and-through, as demonstrated by Mary Harney’s return to the fold after the death of the PDs. As for the Greens? Well, in the three years they’ve spent at the top table, they failed to influence government policy in any significant way and — in fact — enthusiastically supported Fianna Fáil at pretty much every turn. Even refusing to rock the boat on issues like the Corrib gas field, or the motorway cutting a swathe through the Tara Valley (a project they described as “a monstrous act of cultural vandalism” just a few short months before taking office and supporting the government carrying out that monstrous act).

See, this is the problem. The people voting for Enda Kenny and his empty suits claim to be voting for change. When in fact they are voting for a clear continuation of the dreadful policies of the past 15 years.

The significant problems we have cannot be solved using the same kinds of thinking with which we created them – Albert Einstein (attrib)

Vincent Browne

Give them the eye Vincent!

My overseas readers may be a little confused by the title of this post. “Who the hell is Vincent Browne?” they wonder. “Is he some far-left politician, perhaps?” No, he’s not. Vincent Browne is the presenter of a nightly political discussion on TV3. I’ve heard him described as “the Irish Jeremy Paxman”, but while I understand the reasons some might say that (his tenacious insistence on getting people to answer the damn question draws the comparison), it’s a rather lazy comparison. I see him as being closer to Peter Falk’s Columbo. The way he paces his questions and the disarming self-deprecation he uses to confound the more combative panel members is straight out of Columbo.

Over the past few weeks, Tonight with Vincent Browne has become essential viewing in the Bliss household. The panel of four or five members is usually made up of a mix of politicians, academics, artists and journalists. The discussion is usually entertaining, occasionally informative but always worth watching. Whether it’s Fianna Fáil junior minister Conor Lenihan completely losing the plot and shouting at Browne to “back off Vincent, or I’ll come at you!” Or the eminently likeable independent candidate, Paul Sommerville, visibly seething while discussing the economic policies of the Fianna Fáil government. Or just the eclectic mix of opinions that he assembles, Browne’s programme is one of the few edifying things about this current election campaign… indeed about Irish politics in general right now.

Would I genuinely want him as Taoiseach? Of course not. Do I agree with everything he says? Not at all. But at a time when Ireland is sinking beneath the weight of bland corporate apologists dressed as representatives of the people, Vincent Browne — for all his faults, and all the controversies — is a beacon of light.

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8
Feb 2011

Heckling Enda Kenny

And so the General Election campaign gets into full swing. Lamp posts are festooned with posters of unlikeable and untrustworthy fools demanding the right to speak on my behalf. The news is filled with lies as they tell us how they’ll solve the economic crisis. And the abject farce of the TV debates leaves an all-pervasive stench of bullshit wafting across our political landscape.

Tonight was to be the first of the TV debates and the leaders of the three main parties were invited on to TV3 to discuss their plans for the next five years. Not only were none of the leaders of the smaller parties invited — so that it was to be a debate between three centre-right, pro-corporate parties without an ounce of genuine vision between them — but one of those centrist leaders refused to take part because he didn’t like the man chosen to chair the debate.

Enda Kenny: because Real Change is too much to expect

Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael and — if the polls are to be believed — our next Taoiseach, denied the Irish people a chance to see him challenged by those who would oppose him in what is one of the most petulant example of political cowardice I’ve ever witnessed. Unable to put aside his personal differences with the questioner for two hours in the name of open debate and transparent democracy, he instead fled to a Fine Gael stronghold where he took tame questions from an audience of his supporters in what was billed as a “Town Hall meeting”. If he honestly thinks it presented an adequate scrutiny of his ideas, then those ideas must be very shallow indeed.

The one moment of interest came when a lone heckler, “Bobby”, spoke truth to power for the only occasion all evening. Bobby told us he was unemployed, with a sick father he was unable to support and a sister emigrating to Hungary to find work. He demanded to know what Kenny would do about his situation… a situation being experienced by an increasingly large Irish underclass; marginalised during the Celtic Tiger and now shafted by politicians who see the forces of capitalism as their true constituency.

Kenny, bizarrely, responded by citing utterly irrelevant statistics as though they actually meant something. Fine Gael would set up 20 thousand internships for graduates who couldn’t find paying work, he told Bobby (who had lost his job as a road-sweeper). The idea that an unemployed road-sweeper, trying and failing to support his ailing father, is going to be helped by a promise of 20,000 unpaid positions for graduates was as clear an example of the deep disconnect between mainstream politicians and the people they claim to represent as you will ever see. 17,000 apprentices who were unable to complete their courses due to the collapse of the construction sector will be provided with the opportunity to finish those apprenticeships. “So at least they’ll have a piece of paper”. He actually said that! “So at least they’ll have a piece of paper”.

Here is an unemployed man, sinking beneath a mess created by the unholy alliance of politicians, bankers and developers who ran this nation into the ground, desperate for some sliver of hope. And Enda Kenny responds with promises of unpaid work for graduates and a piece of paper for out-of-work apprentices. When Bobby, having listened to Kenny’s response with the vain expectation that it might actually contain something relevant to him, responded with perfectly reasonable disgust… “I can smell it from here!” (a line that should become the unofficial motto of these elections), he was booed and shouted down by the vast majority of those present. A demonstration of the pathetically tame nature of Kenny’s audience. Laughingly, Bobby’s question was sandwiched between questions from two Fine Gael councillors.

Bobby gives Enda Kenny a piece of his mind.
Sadly the applause close to the end isn’t for Bobby, but is in response to Enda Kenny saying “Bobby, you’ve been very welcome to our meeting, but you’ve made your point”. Our meeting.

The safe bubble of sycophancy in which Enda Kenny has sought refuge has clearly insulated him from the realisation that there are a thousand Bobbys out there for every Fine Gael councillor.

That said… the capacity for people to vote against their best interests should never be underestimated, and our politicians are counting on just that. Enda Kenny will be our next Taoiseach because our political system is heavily insured against genuine change. People want change. At least, they say they do. Yet they’ll vote for a party which is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the one that spent the past 12 years in power. The faces will be different, but the policies will remain the same. The pro-capitalist, corporatist agenda that is ripping Ireland to shreds — and indeed the rest of the world — will be maintained whichever of the three main parties gets into power. The obscene transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich and greedy will continue unabated. Hospitals and schools will close, our pension fund and remaining national assets will, along with a hefty chunk of our taxes, be efficiently funnelled into the coffers of private investors and financial institutions who have rigged the system so that any risk associated with the decisions they make will be borne by a public without any say in those decisions.

The gap between the rich and the rest is widening. And the process is being helped along by Enda Kenny and his unsavoury ilk.


UPDATE: There’s some speculation that “Bobby” may not have been an unemployed street-sweeper, but an actor planted in the audience by a political opponent. Or that he is indeed an unemployed street-sweeper but was invited to the meeting by a political opponent specifically in order to heckle. As discussed in the comments below, I don’t actually think this invalidates the things he said; because there are tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of Irish people in exactly the situation he claimed to be in, and Enda Kenny’s response was frankly embarrassing, and would have remained embarrassing had “Bobby” been genuine. I suspect this fact will now be lost as the media get obsessed with the story of Bobby being a fraud, as opposed to the shameful performance of Kenny. One can only sigh in frustration.

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23
Jan 2011

Bye Bye Biffo

This short piece is intended to explain recent developments in Irish politics to overseas readers who may be a little confused by the rapidly changing situation.

Blogging about Irish politics at the moment is a difficult task. Anything you write is liable to be out of date before you hit the “Publish” button. As the title of this piece suggests, I had originally intended to write about Brian Cowen (“Biffo”) resigning* as leader of Fianna Fáil, the largest party in our ruling coalition. But soon after I began writing the piece I took a break to make a sandwich. I switched on the TV to be greeted by a news report informing me that we no longer have a ruling coalition.

Certainly there’s a grim fascination in watching the fools and charlatans of our political class dig themselves and the nation into ever deeper and darker holes. Chaos creates spectacle after all. But after a while it just starts to become depressing. The entire political structure is rotten to the core and those who speak loudest of reforming it are those who work hardest to reinforce it.

Brian Cowen resigns

Brian Cowen: The end of a political career

Despite resigning as party leader, Cowen will remain Taoiseach (Prime Minister) until the General Election. Earlier in the week, he announced the election would take place on March 11th. Mind you, he also announced his intention to lead Fianna Fáil into that election. Two years earlier, he announced that the Irish Bank Guarantee would not cost the taxpayer a single cent. Then he spent a couple of years announcing that his government would not request a “bail out” from the IMF/EU. An announcement he was still reiterating three days before his government requested a “bail out”** from the IMF/EU. Needless to say, there’s nobody left in the country willing to place their faith in the announcements of Brian Cowen.

Which is probably why, almost immediately after announcing his intention to lead his party into the election, he was faced with a Fianna Fáil vote of no-confidence in his leadership. A vote that, weirdly enough, he won. Scratch that. It’s not very weird at all. Given the staggering lack of ideas in modern Irish politics, it doesn’t surprise me that even within the framework of a secret ballot, Fianna Fáil TDs chose to support a completely discredited leader rather than consider the possibility of change. Heaven forbid they should have to engage in independent thought!

Not that it mattered. Within hours of Cowen winning the confidence vote and — theoretically — the support of his party, the resignations began. About a third of his cabinet resigned and Cowen attempted a reshuffle. This point is a bit murky and some reports have suggested he demanded the resignations as punishment for those who had been briefing against him in the run up to the confidence vote. Remarkably though, the reshuffle failed when his erstwhile partners in government, The Green Party, blocked the reappointment of new ministers.

The Greens are facing electoral meltdown as a result of their limp participation in arguably the most disastrous government in modern Irish history. Not unreasonably, they feared the public might be further annoyed by Cowen promoting a bunch of his friends to the cabinet, and a hefty ministerial pension, for the six short weeks before the lot of them get kicked out by the electorate. And they didn’t want to be associated with such a cynical maneuver.

If they think a death-bed conversion is going to help them at the polls they’re sorely mistaken. The time for the Greens to leave government was the night in September 2008 that the unlimited Bank Guarantee was made. And I seriously doubt the Irish people will forgive them for that failure.

Anyway, with Cowen unable even to appoint minsters to his own cabinet, he had clearly lost the ability to lead his party — let alone the nation. He limped on for another couple of days until the Greens gained the courage to make a decision. Over two years late and only after they’d been backed into a corner, the party I voted for — the party who claimed to represent me — finally found its voice. And what a pathetic squeak of a voice it was too. Holding a Press Conference at a luxury Dublin hotel, the Greens announced that they were resigning from government but would still vote with the government on the imminent Finance Bill.

Such courage! Such conviction! To relinquish the trappings of power a full month before being ousted, but only after pledging to continue supporting the financial and economic policies of Brian Cowen’s government.

See, the Finance Bill is due to pass through the Dáil and the Seanad (the houses of parliament) over the next week or two. In effect it provides the legal framework for the “bail out”. It rubberstamps the debt transfer from private into public hands and will be remembered as the most obscene piece of legislation in the history of our republic. By withdrawing from government but not from the passage of this Bill, the Green Party merely highlight their craven complicity in this most dishonourable of betrayals. Rarely has a democratically elected government so dramatically sold out those they claimed to represent.

The ever-strident Joe Higgins, MEP and leader of the Irish Socialist Party, voiced his dissatisfaction at this on the floor of the European Parliament this week, claiming — quite correctly — that the “bail out” was little more than “a mechanism to make vassals of the Irish taxpayers”. Note also Manuel Barosso’s complete evasion of the central issue of the morality of transferring private debt into public hands…

So what happens next? Well, the Finance Bill will be passed over the next 7 to 10 days and the government will be dissolved immediately afterwards. The election date will be brought forward from March 11th and will now occur some time in the latter half of February. Fianna Fáil will suffer their worst ever defeat at the polls (maybe even a terminal one) and be replaced by a Fine Gael government, perhaps in coalition with the Irish Labour Party. This will not represent a substantial change. The faces will be different but the policies, attitudes and vision will remain the same.

In the longer term though, the Irish people simply cannot support the level of debt being heaped upon us by those we appointed to run our affairs. We will default on this debt; be under no illusions about that. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later… before our pension reserve fund and few remaining national assets are syphoned off into the bottomless pockets of a diseased international financial system built on blood and greed.

I’ll write more about the evolving situation and the impending election over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

* let’s face it, it was a “resignation” in name only. He was ousted, albeit two years late.

** I think it’s important to place scare quotes around “bail out” to constantly remind ourselves that what’s happening is, in a very real sense, the opposite of a bail out. Or rather, it is a bail out, but it’s the Irish people doing the bailing as opposed to the official line which paints us as the recipients of aid. Massive debts were incurred by private financial institutions and the transfer of those debts onto the shoulders of the Irish taxpayer is certainly a “bail out” (with quotes) as opposed to a bail out (without quotes).

Let me reiterate a point I have made on several occasions because it is of supreme importance… what is happening in Ireland at the moment is a massive expropriation of public assets by the institutions of private capital. And anyone who imagines that — should they be permitted to get away with this crime — those institutions will stop at Ireland, is a naive fool. As a result of ecological mismanagement and impending resource constraints, free market capitalism has begun to collapse. And like a thieving guest, it is filling its pockets with whatever valuables it can get its hands on before the party’s over. You’re next folks. Wherever you live, you’re next. And if the governments of the world aren’t willing to intervene and put a stop to this robbery in Ireland, then at the very least learn from what’s happening here.

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