tag: Vincent Browne



28
Jan 2013

Just checking in

Hey folks. Just a quick post to let you know that I’ve not become fed up with blogging so soon into the new year. It’s just the fact that almost as soon as I pledged to post more frequently, I suddenly secured a work contract that has me snowed under. Which is a good thing from my perspective, even if it does mean I’m neglecting you, dear reader. Not to worry though, it’s a relatively short-term contract, so I’ll be back before too long. In the meantime I’ll try to add some short posts. Mostly links to interesting stuff elsewhere, I suspect.

Today, for example, my article on WB Yeats has come round again over at On This Deity (the relentless march of time keeps the calendar spinning). If you’ve not read it before, you can check it out now.

Meanwhile, both here in Ireland and across the sea in Britain, the hyping of shale gas continues apace. “Shale gas could be worth billions!” says a man with a vested interest in over-estimating the worth of shale gas. Let’s not mince words, the exploitation of shale gas could end up being one of the most environmentally damaging processes seen on these islands since the clear-cutting of the old forests between 2500 and 500BC. And the notion that it’s a case of “shale gas or coal” is just a nonsense. Yes, renewable energy systems may be slightly more expensive from a financial standpoint, but measuring environmental degradation in terms of an arbitrary monetary system is literally psychotic. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, “we could have saved it, but we were too damned cheap.”

A quick “congratulations” to Novak Djokovic, world number one tennis player and the first man to win three Australian Open championships in a row in the professional era. Sorry British / Scottish pals, but Djokovic thoroughly deserved his victory and there’s no shame in coming second to such an incredible player. Now, let’s look forward to the French Open.

Finally I’ll leave you with a video. It’s been uploaded by SWP Ireland (but don’t let that put you off). Feel free to watch the whole thing on YouTube, but it’s the short speech by Vincent Browne (Ireland’s sanest political commentator) which starts about 18 and a half minutes in that I’m linking to. Most of it will be familiar to those of you who have read Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, but it’s a worthwhile listen all the same.

“Common sense” in the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.- Albert Einstein

Have a good day y’all.

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13
Nov 2012

An alternative plan

It has become a mantra of the mainstream here in Ireland… “it’s all very well to criticise”, they say, “but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

You hear it trotted out regularly by government politicians in the news and on current affairs programmes. Usually in response to a challenge from one of the small cohort of usual suspects from the Irish Left. It goes like this:

Clare Daly

Socialist TD, Clare Daly:
A saner voice than most, but still not sane enough

Perhaps in a Dáil (parliamentary) question, or maybe from behind the desk on the Vincent Browne show, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly or someone from Sinn Féin* will remind a minister of the basic injustice of the bank guarantee strangling this country.

The minister will then respond thus: he or she will acknowledge that mistakes have been made. There will be a rueful reminder of the complete mess they’ve inherited from the last lot. The phrase “to an extent our hands are tied with regards to…” will be used. We will be reminded that nobody wants to be in the current situation and that our politicians certainly don’t want to make the tough decisions they’re being forced to make. But those tough decisions do have to be made for the good of the country. And remember, to an extent our hands are tied…

The minister will then finish with the well worn coup de grâce. “Well”, he or she will announce with feigned gravitas, “it’s all very well to criticise, but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

And with that, the debate in the media is won. That same discussion has been happening on our screens for the past two years, and those on The Left don’t appear to understand that every time it happens, they lose the argument yet again. And losing the same argument over and over, every night on TV for two years, makes you look like a bad bet when it comes to choosing who to run the country.

Now, some of you might be wondering why “I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan” wins the argument. Why don’t The Left just propose an alternative plan then? After all, if they can’t do that, then they probably don’t merit your vote. Except it’s not quite that simple. See the challenge is not simply to propose an alternative plan, it’s to propose an alternative plan that can be coherently communicated to a mass audience in approximately two minutes. As Chomsky pointed out (and whatever you think of Chomsky, he’s right about this) complex or radical ideas can almost never be coherently explained to a mass audience in a soundbite. Especially if those ideas challenge pre-existing beliefs about the world.

That’s one theory why The Left is losing the media debate right now – losing the debate despite a growing groundswell of discontent with the government. Basically they do possess an alternative plan, but because it involves massive structural changes to the way Irish society works, it can’t be conveyed quickly without sounding wild or risky or just plain mad (of course, it’s only our familiarity with current social structures that obscures the wild, risky madness they represent). So those on The Left shy away from their alternative and instead talk about burning the bondholders, defaulting on the bank debt, revoking the promissory notes, overturning the bank guarantee. Repetition has hollowed out those phrases… they’ve become like marketing slogans for a product you’ll never afford. The other side has their own set of course. They talk about a return to growth, of fiscal responsibility and of being on-track to meet our targets. And they look wistfully into the middle distance and speak in hushed tones of the glorious day when we proudly rejoin the bond markets.

My other theory is less charitable to The Left. The reason they don’t discuss radical alternatives in the media is not because they’re worried about appearing incoherent when forced to shoehorn their plan into soundbite form. It’s because they don’t actually have a radical alternative. See, compared with a hundred years ago, general political discourse has today been narrowed to a tiny segment of the spectrum. The Irish Labour Party… the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin… is now entirely wedded to the notion of free market capitalism. And they are the “centre left” member of the coalition government. But there’s a sense that even those who critique the government from further left are trapped in that free market capitalist paradigm.

They talk about ending the “casino capitalism” that has helped plunge this country into debt. But they don’t talk about ending “capitalism”. Remove the casino but leave the rest of the edifice standing. It’s reform they want… they don’t want to replace the system with a radical alternative, they just want to tinker with the way it’s running.

All of which makes it impossible for them to be coherent. By aligning themselves with the forces of market capitalism they are forced to accept the internal logic of the markets demanding Ireland sell its future.

Personally, I do have an alternative plan. Unfortunately though, when I describe the plan it sounds risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. I don’t believe it’s any of those things, but decades of free-market indoctrination makes it seem that way from a mainstream perspective.

My plan involves radical reform of the political structures (starting with freeing TDs from party whips and strengthening local government), a wave of nationalisations, the end of a free market in non-renewable resources, the removal of the profit motive from essential industries and services, a radical localisation of those essential industries and services, the introduction of a Universal Living Income coupled with significant tax increases for those who earn more than three times that amount, a rise in corporation tax to bring us close to the European average, the implementation of secondary regional currencies which would exist alongside the euro, the immediate repudiation by the sovereign of all private debt transferred to it, a complete structural reform of NAMA, investment in local infrastructure projects and a far-reaching redefinition of “illegal activity” within the financial and political sectors. I would also radically reform Ireland’s social policies in a number of areas (drug law, marriage equality, etc.) and I’d ensure that Ireland unilaterally embarked on a journey towards a decarbonised and sustainable future… hopeful that others might follow our example.

As I say… risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. Accurate descriptions to those living in a society that has lost its ability to re-imagine itself and therefore abandoned all attempts to do so. Instead we blunder down exactly the same path we’ve been on for the past few decades; a path destined to lead us to disaster. Me? I’d rather take a risk on a different path, even if we don’t have an accurate map of where it might lead. Especially when we know the one we’re on ends with a plunge into the abyss.

* On the subject of the financial crisis – and is there any other subject right now in Ireland? – Sinn Féin qualify as part of The Left.

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8
May 2012

Austerity

Synonyms for austerity: harshness, strictness, asceticism, rigour (source: dictionary.com).

CapitalismA little over three weeks from now the people of Ireland will vote in a referendum. At stake is Irish participation in the European Fiscal Compact, a pan-European treaty that attempts to lay down strict budgetary rules for those nations who sign up. The ‘Yes’ campaign is referring to it as “The Stability Treaty”. The ‘No’ campaign calls it the “Austerity Treaty”. While it’s true that I am ideologically opposed to the treaty, I contend that my position is grounded in reality. That is; you can demonstrate – using “facts” and everything* – that the treaty will result in austerity for Ireland, while its characterisation as a “stability” treaty is extremely dubious to say the least.

Incidentally, does anyone remember the Lisbon Treaty? At the second time of asking, we endorsed it in October 2009. The ‘Yes’ camp – the very same people urging ‘Yes’ later this month remember – characterised it as the “Jobs Treaty”. Hmmm, we’ve not had an apology from them on that one yet. But I guess we shouldn’t expect politicians to apologise for completely misleading the citizenry and promising things they’re unable to deliver. Indeed, most of them seem to think that’s actually part of their job description.

What I find really remarkable about modern politicians is their ability to maintain such a breath-taking lack of self-awareness despite living their lives in a media spotlight. They never admit to mistakes; presumably believing they never make any. In other words, believing they are fundamentally better than the rest of us (because god knows we all make mistakes). Moreover, politicians appear so completely unaware of their own limitations as to give the impression that they don’t feel they have any. The vast majority of us over-estimate our own abilities… it’s part of being human… but politicians, whether they are the Left or the Right, do so to such a degree it’s almost beyond parody. Personally I believe I’d do a better job running the country than the current lot we’ve got in the job. But – and it’s a crucial “but” – I don’t think I’d do a great job at it. Just a better one. And given the incredible importance of that job, I’d need to be a self-interested, power-hungry careerist to put myself forward for it unless I thought I could do a great job.

So either the people running the country are just a bunch of self-interested, power-hungry careerists; willing to place their own personal desires and ambitions above the collective good… or they are supremely unaware of their own limitations. Because, let’s face it, it’s hardly a secret that the job they’re doing ain’t that great.

But back to the Treaty

Yes indeed. The posters have started to go up. Far more ‘Yes’ posters than ‘No’ based on a trip into Dublin City today. But that’s to be expected given the financial muscle behind the ‘Yes’ campaign. All three major political parties support the treaty. No surprise there… any suggestion that the Labour Party might take a more nuanced position (especially given the position of the bulk of the Unions) were fanciful in the extreme. Labour donned the neoliberal uniform the moment they sold their principles to Fine Gael in return for a taste of power. Their protestations that they’ve managed to ameliorate some of the more savage cuts proposed by Fine Gael possess but the thinnest shred of truth.

Against the treaty stands Sinn Féin, the Unions (well, most of them) and the leftist parties. Oh, and Éamon Ó’Cuiv. Fair play to Éamon. He may well be the exception to my characterisation of mainstream politicians that proves the rule. And rumours abound that he’ll soon be expelled from Fianna Fáil for his stance. Remarkable really… you can run the country into the ground, you can endorse a Bank Guarantee that transfers massive private debts onto the shoulders of generations yet unborn, you can break a thousand promises to the electorate. All of these things are par for the course in modern politics – commendable even. But to stand by your principles? Apparently that’s grounds for expulsion.

Seriously, you can’t actually be cynical enough about politics any more. It has passed beyond that realm. All we are left with is disbelief, despair and contempt. And hopefully the stirrings of a genuine anger… though I see little enough of that right now in Ireland more’s the pity.

The latest polls seem to suggest the ‘Yes’ majority is being eroded slowly. Unfortunately it seems too slow at the moment to turn the tide come May 31st (though with a bit of luck the election results in France and Greece, along with the failure of the Dutch government to push through the policies of austerity, will inspire us here in Ireland). Personally I ascribe this ‘Yes’ majority to two factors… one: a shamelessly biased media (the Irish Times has been little short of disgraceful on this matter, and RTÉ not much better – once again, we should be thankful for Vincent Browne**… long may he continue to be a thorn in the side of the establishment); and two: the success of the scare-mongering tactics employed by the ‘Yes’ campaign. As I mentioned here before, the campaign was kicked off by a Fine Gael minister insisting that a ‘No’ vote would be “like a bomb going off in Dublin”. That’s the very definition of scare-mongering… comparing my ‘No’ vote to an act of terrorism; suggesting that when I place my ‘X’ in the ‘No’ box, I am metaphorically carrying out an act of extreme violence. Such undiluted nonsense from a government minister should be shameful, but these people know no shame.

On top of that we’ve had government spokespeople assuring us that a ‘No’ vote will “cut Ireland off from external funding”. It took those opposing the treaty over a week to finally wrest a statement from the “impartial” Referendum Commission that this was – in fact – a lie. Plain and simple. A lie. But the Commission’s declaration hasn’t had nearly the same media exposure as the lie it exposes.

We need Austerity

See, this is the weird thing. Europe – like the rest of western civilisation – actually needs to radically reduce its consumption. We have created an unsustainable society that we should be scaling back right now (because if we don’t do it, then resource depletion will do it for us pretty soon anyway… and chances are it’ll involve less suffering if we take matters into our own hands on this issue). But, to jump back to the synonyms which opened this post, we need the austerity of ‘rigour’. And what’s being foisted upon us is ‘harshness’. That’s how it is, no matter what the ‘Yes’ campaign might claim (and each time they claim otherwise, remember the same people also claimed Lisbon was the “Jobs Treaty”).

The policies being adopted by our government; the policies that will be enshrined in the Irish Constitution if we pass this dangerous treaty; the policies that Angela Merkel has announced are “non-negotiable” (can someone please tell me who the hell gave the German government the right to tell the rest of Europe what we may or may not negotiate?); these are policies that will be unnecessarily harsh on the vast majority of Europe’s citizens, precisely so that the financial institutions of Europe don’t need to adopt a rigorous approach to their affairs.

This treaty places the interests of European banks above the interests of European people (and those who say those interests are synonymous need to cop on to themselves). It imposes austerity without addressing sustainability. Europe needs a sustainable alternative. It needs a radical alternative. An alternative based on social justice (a radical proposal in itself in these days of neoliberal greed and casino capitalism)… an alternative based on human decency and human dignity. I believe that alternative can be found in a flight away from capitalism. I believe that we should be looking towards the ideas of Bertrand Russell, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Lucy Parsons, Gregory Bateson, Albert Einstein and so many others. People who realised that capitalist society has been shaped by the few, for the few. And that this has to change if we are to create a world worthy and capable of long-term survival.

A ‘No’ vote on May 31st won’t bring the words of those wise few to life. It won’t bring about a Golden Age of social progress. It carries risks and will certainly be met with a punitive reaction from the financial institutions that currently run Europe. A ‘No’ vote will not bring back the Celtic Tiger, because the Celtic Tiger is never coming back. But it will strike a blow against the forces of injustice and inequality. It will halt our own government’s headlong rush into the abyss. And it will demonstrate that – just like the French and the Greeks – we in Ireland are fed up taking orders from the very bankers who destroyed the global economy. Vote ‘No’.

* Michael Taft supplies some of those facts in this article on Politico.ie. You can find plenty more if you click around that site.

** Out of interest, could a non-Irish-resident reader click on this link and tell me whether it’s possible to watch the Vincent Browne show online from outside Ireland? You don’t need to watch a whole show (unless you really want to), just click one of the recent episodes and let me know if it is viewable… I occasionally want to link to a particular episode from this blog, but don’t know whether – like the BBC iPlayer – it’s inaccessible overseas.

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19
Jan 2012

You tell ‘em, Vincent

Just a short one this, the representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB) – collectively known as “the troika” – completed their latest quarterly review of the Irish austerity programme today. As I mentioned in a recent post, they were in Dublin to check up on the Irish government… making sure our elected representatives are doing as they’re told.

Vincent Browne

Give them the eye Vincent!

And it turns out the review was a positive one. We’re being good little girls and boys here in Ireland. We’re pouring the wealth of the nation into the European banking system as per instruction. We’re doing this because a small number of private investors and banks made stupid decisions a few years ago. It makes absolutely no sense unless you view it as grand larceny. Inevitably there’ll be someone (as we’ll see in the video) who will defend this process by babbling about “stability” and the costs of not acting outweighing the benefits.

But this response is ultimately self-defeating – well, it is when it comes from a top official at the ECB. Because inherent in that response is an admission that the international financial system is required to engage in grand larceny in order to maintain stability. Which makes the system completely unfit for purpose.

Anyway, having carried out the latest review, spokesmen for each member of the troika held a press conference in Dublin today. Istvan Szekely of the EC, Klaus Masuch of the ECB and Craig Beaumont of the IMF sat down and faced the Irish media. It’s the kind of event that generally gets forgotten as soon as it’s over because it tends to be little more than a prepared statement followed by a handful of safe questions, lobbed softly at the participants and deftly dismissed with bland sound-bites. Today’s press conference was slightly different though, thanks to the presence of Vincent Browne; perhaps the only voice of righteous outrage we have left in Irish public life. He’s truly a national treasure; though not in the safe, comfortable manner that phrase is often used. The years have not diminished his passion and he remains a genuine firebrand.

Anyway, he didn’t get a satisfactory response to his question; merely the aforementioned vague babbling about stability and costs versus benefits. But he nonetheless made his point, and I’m bloody glad that he did.

The video I’ve included here only offers an edited version of the press conference (the entire thing can be viewed on the RTÉ website – in which case, the Vincent Browne question begins at 18mins) so I should add a little context… the previous question asked the troika representatives how they perceived the Irish attitude towards them and the “bail-out” process. Klaus Masuch of the ECB jokingly commented on how well-informed his taxi-driver seemed to be on complex economic matters (we were left to guess at the kind of ear-bashing he received during his trip from the airport to the Merrion Hotel). Browne, as you will see if you jump to 6:25 in the embedded video, followed up on this:

Almost the entire exchange between Browne and Masuch can be viewed in that edit, though a few seconds of exasperation from Vincent does get cut from the end of the segment.

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13
Dec 2011

Brian Hayes and Budget 2011

Here in Ireland we have just been subjected to the latest in a line of “austerity budgets”. I thought I was beyond being astonished at how craven our government – in their willing complicity with the diktats of The Market – could be. How wrong I was. The brutal cynicism of the Fine Gael / Labour coalition has dropped even my jaw (personally I think the Labour Party should be forced to change their name under trades description legislation). It was a budget bordering on the wilfully evil.

There were savage cuts to disability benefits, child benefit, the winter fuel allowance, community employment schemes, the back-to-school allowance and much more… some of which will save a few million at most while making life unbearable for those already at breaking point. Despite the steadfast refusal to even discuss raising taxes on the wealthiest and the highest earners, we saw an enthusiastic embrace of VAT increases, a flat-tax household charge and other indirect taxes that will hit the most vulnerable hardest. And to add insult to injury, we were forced to endure the obscene spectacle of ministers earning a small fortune appearing on TV to tell us just how difficult it was for them to inflict such pain on the nation. How they’d done all they could do in order to ensure that the burden of austerity was being shared equally. Orwell’s observation that “some are more equal than others” may as well be the slogan for this government. Poor dears, in their ministerial cars, with their gilt-edged pensions, generous expense accounts and salaries of over 5 times the national average.

Brian Hayes (Fine Gael TD)Vincent Browne, one of the few remaining voices of sanity in Irish public life, perfectly illustrated this rank hypocrisy when he cornered Brian Hayes – a Fine Gael minister – on his show. The politician bristled with indignation when Browne suggested he was on a salary of €150,000… it was only €130,000 he protested. That’s still a “mega-salary” insisted Browne (quite rightly) and went on to wonder… “compared with the people you have afflicted in this budget, isn’t there something grotesque about you people sitting around and commiserating with yourselves about the hard decisions you have to take when all the pain of those hard decisions is on somebody else?” The blustering arrogance as Hayes tried to wriggle out of the question was cringe-inducing. “The pain is throughout our society”, he stated (almost as though he believed it). Browne rounded on him… “No it’s not! How is it on you? You get away scot-free!” Hayes eventually resorted to plaintively pointing out that the VAT increase would affect him too. He then tried to make the issue about just how sincere Vincent Browne’s outrage was… this contempt for the public is gut-churning, and I desperately hope that the people of Dublin South West consign him to the dustbin of history at the next election.

You can see the exchange here:

Alternatively you can watch the entire programme, for a limited time here, though that may not be available outside Ireland.

The assertion that a 2% VAT increase will affect someone on 130 grand in anything like the same way it will affect someone on welfare, or even someone on the average national wage… that “the pain” is truly being felt “throughout society”… indicates one of the following; (a) that Brian Hayes is an idiot, (b) that he’s utterly out of touch with reality, or (c) that he’s a bare-faced liar of the worst kind. I won’t say which one I think it is, but I will say that all of those are terrible traits for someone in a position of power. That he then tried to change the subject and discuss the attitude of the interviewer, the day on which such a devastating budget had been announced, just made him seem even more pathetic. I know I lambaste politicians on a regular basis, but Brian Hayes managed to plumb new depths last week. Though I suspect it won’t be long before someone from Labour or Fine Gael discovers yet deeper waters of iniquity in which to swim.

Photo courtesy of Politico.ie

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1
Nov 2011

More news from Greece

A few months after the United States invaded Iraq, Dubya Bush sent Condoleeza Rice on a whistle-stop tour of US allies. Presumably her job was to gauge how much support was out there and to shore up whatever there was. I was living in the UK at the time and I recall the protests that greeted Rice’s arrival in London. A few days later she touched down in Athens and the news reported a huge demonstration that ended with petrol bombs being thrown at the US Embassy. It occurred to me that there was an important cultural difference on display there. It’s not about which response was right… whether Rice’s visit merited placards or petrol bombs. It’s that it takes far less provocation to get the Greeks to reach for the petrol bombs than it does to get the British.

Greek protestsThis is something that I’ve constantly borne in mind during the Greek protests. The austerity measures being forced upon the Greek citizenry aren’t that much worse than those being forced upon us here in Ireland. But Occupy Dame Street notwithstanding, the Irish citizenry is a long long way from general strikes and petrol bombs. Which isn’t to say that we can’t be pushed to it. Our history of armed uprisings is quite emphatic about that. But we appear to be slower to be roused to such action.

Why that should be, and whether it’s for the better or the worse is beyond the brief of this short post, but it’s worthwhile to place the Greek protests in that context. Which is to say… if relatively limited austerity measures will provoke the protests we’ve seen, then the potential for a populist movement toppling the government is very real indeed when you consider the far more draconian measures coming down the line as a result of the “bail out”. Something akin to revolution has been brewing in South-eastern Europe over the past few days. And lest you think I’m guilty of hyperbole, I present two pieces of evidence. One you already know about. Another that’s just been announced and which may or may not catch the attention of the global press.

The one you know about is, obviously, the referendum announcement. I was incredulous when I first heard it on the news yesterday. Papandreou couldn’t have created more chaos if he’d started chucking live grenades around the Head of State meeting. First he agrees to the terms of the “bail-out”, then – after every other EU leader holds a press-conference in which they speak of their relief at the deal being finalised and how it would have been disaster for Europe if they’d failed – he goes on TV and retracts his pledge and instead tells Europe he’s going to consult the Greek people. The same people whose response to the current deal includes general strikes and rioting.

It seems pretty clear to me that Papandreou arrived back in Athens, fresh from agreeing to the European “bail-out”, only to be met by grim faces. And he was told… “If you do this, your government will fall. And whatever replaces it will not implement that deal anyway”. He was backed into a corner and did the only thing he could; he bought some time for Europe to come up with a way of easing Greece out of the euro as gracefully as possible.

How do we know he was backed into a corner? Well, that’ll be the other piece of evidence. A few hours ago the Greek government surprised a lot of people (including those in the military) by announcing a wholesale change of the entire military top brass. The Heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Defence Force were all replaced earlier today. On a day where the Prime Minister is clinging to power by his fingertips, where his government’s majority has been whittled down even further by defections and prominent members of his own party are calling on him to resign. On a day where global markets are plunging as a result of Papandreou’s referendum announcement and European politicians are – not to put too fine a point on it – completely freaking out, does anyone think the Greek government has anything at all on its agenda that isn’t extremely urgent? And there’s not a lot of reasons why the replacement of the military high command becomes urgent.

Papandreou has played his final cards. The referendum might turn out to be a slice of political genius (opposition to the “bail out” is running at 62% according to the latest poll I saw… that’s not insurmountable) and the current government may somehow survive within the Eurozone by gaining a public mandate. But in my view, the odds of that happening are significantly worse than those poll figures suggest. With internal pressures beginning to fracture the government and something very strange going on with the military, it seems unlikely that Papandreou will be in power long enough to hold the referendum. And there’s no guarantee that his successor will feel the need to honour Papandreou’s commitment to a public vote.

One thing I am looking forward to though, is just what Vincent Browne will have to say about this all on his show tonight. I can almost hear his apoplectic spluttering as he confronts whatever lamb the government have sent to the slaughter… “But wha… wha… why are the Greeks getting a vote on this vital issue but the Irish are not? Does the government believe Irish citizens are not to be trusted? Or maybe that we’re all too stupid to understand what’s going on?”

Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

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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


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


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

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.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion