Sunday 28 October 2007

Mini rant for October


I had occasion to be on the Forbes business website today- someone had told me that the Quinn School of Business of UCD is one of the best in the world, and I wanted to check this out. Insofar as I can tell from the various rankings out there, it must certainly isn't- although Smurfit came in at 20th in Europe in the Financial Times list for 2006.

"Ahhhh... the smell of ambition", was the remark of an engineer friend of mine on his first visit to the Quinn School building down in Belfield. It's always been hard for me to accept that some people choose to do their degrees based on the salary they can expect in a few years time. Rather like joining Ogra Fianna Fail, it's a pretty naked admission that one is primarily motivated by power and money. So the "Thought of the Day" on the Forbes website was a welcome confirmation of my prejudices. A quote from no less a man than Napoleon Bonaparte: "The surest way to remain poor is to be an honest man."

I won't call it a totally rational opinion, and I'm sure some business students do in fact have souls, but I'm confident in my own mind that the road to hell is paved with MBAs.

Friday 26 October 2007

I like this

From The Phoenix. Excuse the breach of copyright.

Picture the recent scene. One of the security guards employed within the last to monitor all access into the Four Courts stands in the path of a bewigged gentleman, barring his way to the Law Library as the flustered legal eagle burrows fruitlessly in his gown, jacket and pin-striped trousers in a quest for his identity card- without which entry in strictly verboten.

The security guards are composed mainly of non-nationals who themselves have had to negotiate strict bureaucratic obstacles to their progress in Irish life- most of them created by an unforgiving ex-minister for justice and Attorney General, Michael McDowell. They know that in this, their new country, rules are made to be obeyed.

As another eminent legal eagle hoves into to, he recognises the gentleman who had lost his identity and so he rushes to his assistance, explaining to the non-national security guard that the person in front of him is none other then Michael McDowell, ex justice minister, former AG and current advocate in the Four Courts.

"I can vouch for him; I know who he is", the barrister eagerly offers. The security guard leans sideways to the helpful barrister and in quiet, reasonably good English, says, "I also know who he is."

Saturday 20 October 2007

World Cup Final

Well, I've been predicting England's demise since before the Tonga game, but surely they must bow out this time. South Africa have played far more expansive and more entertaining rugby throughout the competition, and deserve to be champions. I've played on some bad rugby teams in my time. I know the genre well. England are a bad, ugly rugby team, and brave though they have been, they'll get what's coming to them this evening.

There are a few individuals I sympathise with: Brian Ashton, who seems like a very genuine bloke; Jason Robinson, whose performance against South Africa was worthy of 300 (had the other 299 Spartans been rubbish), and Mike Catt, the Grand Old Man of international rugby. And of course, hoping that England lose because they play negative rugby has me in agreement with Neil Francis, who even as I write is smirking his way through another tour de force in smug punditry, self-satisfaction roiling out of him like the noisome fumes from a gutter-bound drunk. It is, naturally, impossible to stop watching Setanta as a result.

Sunday 14 October 2007

Knock knock

Who's there?

Not Madeline McCann.

There must be dozens of these jokes by now. It doesn't make you feel very good to know them all, let alone to find most of them funny.

Monday 8 October 2007

Teaching private schools a lesson

Mary Hanafin has announced that new fee-paying schools will get no assistance from the government. The Indo seems to have an exclusive with this one; the Minister was reportedly answering a query from Ruairi Quinn, as if to remind Labour that Fianna Fail can be as lefty as anyone, thank you very much indeed. Existing fee-paying schools- of which there are 56 in the State- are to be left alone, but new ones will not receive funding henceforth.

This is an intelligent move by the Minister. Freezing public funding for rich kids is hard to object to openly, and by guaranteeing existing schools any middle-class outcry is stifled. Incidentally, this is also a sign that the new coalition mix is producing some policy changes. The weakened PDs are in no position to block an attack on parental choice in education- which they surely would have in days gone by- and the Greens presumably sympathise with Hanafin.

Whether private schools have a place in Irish education at all is a question that has never aroused the passions that continue to attend the grammar school issue across the water. Anthony Crossland's famous pledge to "destroy every fucking grammar school in England" is a reflection of ideological strife that, for better or for worse, never really got in the way of civil war politics over here. Besides, in Ireland the issue is complicated by the fact, noted by the Indo, that Protestant schools continue to get a hefty dollop of funding in recognition of their minority status. Hanafin will not want to involve these establishments in a tug-of-war between pluralism and social justice- so quite apart from middle-class ire, this consideration should keep existing arrangements in place in the long run.

The English debate may prove instructive in one area, however. There is concern that private (a.k.a. "public") schools there are not doing enough to justify their lucrative charitable status. The link is to an old article, but there have been more recent rumblings that I've been unable to find online. In any case, perhaps private schools here should be asked to do more, in terms of social outreach and serving the community, to justify their funding. In addition, more could be done to address the gripes that these schools avoid taking their share of special needs pupils. Unfavourable coverage of the gap in standards between State and private schools may already be forcing some boards to take stock. Gonzaga College, one of the most sought-after in the country, has already changed its admission policy so that "inability to pay should no longer be an obstacle" to gaining a place there.

But don't look for a full-scale, Crossland-style attack on those lucky 56 any time soon. At the end of the day, a reduction in or end to funding just means that fees rise, putting them out of reach of ever more people. Minister Hanafin evidently believes it better that some get an elite education rather than only a few- or, indeed, all.

Saturday 29 September 2007

In admiration of Bertie

I watched New Zealand absolutely bully Romania in the Rugby World Cup yesterday. What was interesting was how they scored their first two tries; both times, the All Blacks had made errors or were put under pressure by their opponents and were forced to think quickly and play by instinct, ultimately turning the situation to their advantage. It reminded me a lot of Bertie Ahern when the current scandal first came to light about six months ago. Seemingly on the back foot, he falls back on his natural talents (a bit of fancy footwork in front of Brian Dobson), and when the opinion polls came out, he had left the opposition in the dust just when they thought they had hold of him. Scintillating play.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Allez les verts

Pity the Licensed Vintners Association. Their latest ad campaign on the radio, designed to get people back into the pub, included a decent pitch for rugby World Cup viewers. It sounds like they've got Dara O'Briain to do the voice, and it's altogether a very professional piece of marketing (it's even available on the web). Which makes it a real pity that it concludes with the words "the rugby pub is the only place to share that rare surge of pride that comes from watching an Irish team not suck at an international sport".

Hard to believe, with the obvious benefit of hindsight, that we thought we didn't suck. If the French don't give us a serious hiding, I'll eat my jersey.

Monday 17 September 2007

"What answer from the North?": Bertie eyes up the SDLP

Fianna Fail today sat down to their "think-in" out in the wilds of Wicklow. Chaired by Dermot Ahern, the gathering is a welcome opportunity for TDs, councillors and MEPs to get their heads around the serious business of governing for the next five years. An Taoiseach was plainly delighted to be sprung from Dublin Castle, doom of many another Irish patriot in days gone by, and he sprang on us a long-awaited surprise announcement: a plan for expansion into the North.

Bertie would not quite be the first Fianna Fail leader to cross the border: Eamon De Valera, in a move little remembered nowadays, secured election to as MP for South Down in 1933 while in power in the Free State. "[O]rganising on a 32-county basis", as Bertie described it, is however a different kettle of fish- one that could cause more problems than opportunities for the party.

The simple electoral arithmetic is one issue. Most votes in Northern Ireland are cast along pure sectarian lines. This will not change in the foreseeable future; the current settlement, welcome though it is in terms of establishing peace, serves to entrench and reward such "Balkanisation" (to borrow Seamus Mallon's far-sighted phrase). Sinn Fein and the SDLP currently scrabble over a limited nationalist electorate. Insert Fianna Fail into the equation, and you have a recipe for splitting the vote. In the 2005 election, Alasdair McDonnell was able to come through the middle and take the unionist seat of Belfast South for the SDLP. Unionists were horrified, but won't be complaining if it works in their favour: Jeffery Donaldson has already noted that should Fianna Fail enter the playing field there is a possibility of "unionists making some gains in the parliamentary elections".

Fianna Fail possess one of the most impressive electoral machines in Europe, and so they'll realise all this as well. That's why the merger with the SDLP has consistently reared its head over the past few years; no point going after the same soft-nationalist votes, after all. There may never be a better time to try and swallow Mark Durkan & Co. whole: their party is weak enough to succumb, thinking it their best chance of political survival, while still retaining enough of a network to make it worthwhile for Fianna Fail. Indeed, the SDLP have thus far refused to rule out such a merger, according to the BBC, and some with the party have long urged it.

The challenges would nonetheless be formidable, a fact acknowledged by one FF councillor/blogger in a post last year. For example, Fianna Fail would have to absorb a centre-left bloc of voters and turn them more toward the centre-right. This is because Fianna Fail's policies here are only intermittently SDLP-compatible, and some level of consistency must be maintained. Besides, if they are to break the Sinn Fein stranglehold on the North they must do so partly through an ideological battle. With the economy roughly two-thirds dependent on the public sector, and SF still very free with the hard-left rhetoric, there must be room for a centrist party with a good record on the economy to attract prosperous, middle class nationalists. This represents the best way forward, but many within the SDLP would probably consider it a betrayal of its core beliefs.

Then there are the challenges of running a single party in two still distinct jurisdictions. Whatever about the attractiveness on paper of a 32-county party, the failure of a Northern-dominated Sinn Fein to get to grips with the mindset of the Republic's voters cost them dear in the May election. Would a Southern-dominated Social Democratic Soldiers of Destiny (snappy, ain't it) not face similar problems in reverse? And what if a northerner were to become leader of this party? The Taoiseach of the Republic could in theory be answerable to an MLA, representing a local government constituency within the United Kingdom.

Finally, I'll just briefly point out that unionists obviously won't be happy, and that this matters in an artificial set-up like Stormont, where consensus is key. Reg Empey has already registered his disapproval, his key point being that Bertie "has transformed himself from a potential partner in the process of normalisation to a rival".

FF+SDLP=32? It just doesn't add up...

PS: There's plenty of discussion on Slugger O'Toole and politics.ie, which frankly I couldn't be bothered trawling through to see if it contained anything worthwhile. Feel free.

Thursday 13 September 2007

Back in the saddle

Well, silly season is over, and Captain Moonlight is back in action. It's all very exciting, what with Bertie up front of the tribunal, Labour getting a new leader and Stormont getting into its stride up north.

I'm not going to talk about any of that stuff, of course. I'll be watching the rugby.

Thursday 9 August 2007

One more for the road...

From the International Herald Tribune:

"A labor (sic, bloody Americans) court on Wednesday barred German train drivers from striking on Thursday because of concerns the threatened walkout could damage the economy...The court based its ruling on concerns the strike could cause damage to the economy, coming at the height of Germany's tourist season".

As someone who plans to be in Berlin by the weekend, I'm proud to have played my part in ensuring that German workers are denied their right to strike. I don't know what the court was playing at, really; as the union said, the economy is hardly likely to more damaged during the holiday period, when many workers are on holiday and production is lessened, than at any other time. Anyway, all strikes will have economic reprecussions; that's why they work. Happy as I am not to be stranded in the Netherlands, I don't think much of a legal system that puts the convenience of tourists ahead of its own citizens' rights.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Europe ho!

I'll be away 'til early September, so I'll be missing the heart and soul of silly season. Oh horror. I will try and post a few things from the continent; perhaps my travels will give me a wider, European perspective on the sordid goings-on of our mean little island. Or not. Ah well.

Friday 3 August 2007

Ciaran who? And other Taoiseach's nominees

The whole country to choose from to fill 11 seats in the Seanad, and who has Mr. Ahern gone for? Well, it's the usual story in terms of rewarding, compensating and back-scratching. Not that the opposition would have done it a different way, so Leo Varadkar may well want to watch out lest his words about "independent voices" come back to haunt him.

Four of Mr. Ahern's choices are a quid pro quo for the other government parties in return for their supporting his government. As predicted, Dan Boyle has been nominated for the Greens. As one of the Green's few genuine policy heavyweights- his economic manifesto was widely praised- his resurrection was always assured. He will be looking to keep up his profile in order to regain his seat in a competitive Cork South Central constituency. His party college, Deirdre De Burca, was tipped to win a seat in Wicklow at the last outing, but in the event was some 3,000 votes off. Her nomination means that the Greens are by no means abandoning this battleground in the hunt for future gains.

The PDs have opted, after consulting three wise men, to put former TD Fiona O'Malley and Galway East councillor Ciaran Cannon in the Seanad. Ms. O'Malley is seen a potential leader, for better or for worse, and this development may mean that she has the backing of Harney and other senior party figures. Phoenix reckons she may run in Limerick East, the ancient stronghold of the clan O'Malley, rather than her old seat of Dun Laoghaire. Mr. Cannon is a rising star in the PD firmament, or such of it as remains. My own sources in the PDs told me to bet on him for the last election at 20/1- "huge chance" was the phrase used. I lost my tenner, but he performed credibly enough for a first-timer, in a constituency that has never elected a PD, for a party that was in meltdown. He could conceivably make a big splash next time, since none of the sitting TDs have a major national profile, but only if the party at large gets its act together.

The Fianna Fail bunch are a mixed bag of what might charitably be descibed as youth and experience. John Downey in today's Indo reckons that Martin Brady "deserved something" after failing in both the Dail and Seanad elections. Quite why this is the case is unclear. In a similar but more depressing vein is Ivor Callely, who has proved himself utterly unworthy to hold office, elected or appointed. Having resigned his Mini Minister's post over the kind of petty corruption that perennially haunts Fianna Fail, he polled a risible 9 votes in the Seanad elections. Bertie, in acting as Jesus to Callely's Lazarus, has shown once again that he will happily overlook such behaviour in any individual that is deemed useful to the party (take a bow, Beverly Flynn). John Ellis of Leitrim has also known controversy, albeit of a more complex and rural nature, but his nomination ensures that Leitrim has Oireachtas representation, in keeping with the government's preference to dole out jobs of up to Ministerial status on a geographical basis.

Maria Corrigan ran in Dublin South in May and polled well- at one stage, the talk on the RTE election coverage was that she might steal a supremely unlikely third seat for Fianna Fail. She will walk into the Dail the moment Seamus Brennan retires, so her appointment is as reasonable as they come. Brian O Domhnaill is in roughly the same category up in Donegal; Stephen Collins reckons that his job will be to "mark fellow Donegal Senator Pearse Doherty, of Sinn Fein". Lisa McDonald, a Wexford-based solicitor, is being lined up to challenge for a third seat there. It's hard to see the numbers allowing for that, but legal brains in the Upper House are always welcome, given that its only role of even minor import is to check out legislation referred to it.

The sole independent replaces Dr. Maurice Hayes, a widely respected former civil servant in Northern Ireland. The Seanad's last report on reform proceeded on the assumption that the Taoiseach would continue with the convention of nominating a Senator from N.I., but this appears to have been a one-time thing. Instead we are presented with Eoghan Harris, whose credentials include a latter-day conversion to the One True Fianna Faith. Even Mr. Harris himself acknowledged that this may have had something to do with his appointment. Rumours had been previously circulating that he might be appointed to the RTE Authority as reward for services rendered.

The Seanad is however a safer place to put someone who could go off at any moment, and to be fair to Mr. Harris he has contributed significantly to the political life of the country over the course of a never-dull career. Over the last few years (see link for his earlier career) he has been a consistent critic of Sinn Fein, at times to the point of rubbishing the peace process. Younger readers might be forgiven for wondering why he keeps revisiting ideological battles fought in the 1970's, when he worked for RTE. Still, another feisty independent voice in the Seanad is to be welcomed, and the rest will need to work hard if they are to challenge for Dail seats in five years time. Now if only we had something for them to do in there...

Wednesday 1 August 2007

The joys of farming

The Irish Independent reported today that 98% of farmers' income now comes directly from the EU. The actual profit the average farmer makes from agricultural produce is 334 euro a year.

The response from farming bodies, as quoted in the Indo's report, is genuinely puzzling for one who has never before plumbed the murky depths of the agricultural economy. My dimly remembered Leaving Cert Economics, and indeed common sense, tells me that it makes absolutely no sense to produce something at a loss. Almost all Irish farmers are reliant on EU money to stay afloat. This means that producing agricultural goods in Ireland is the most chronically inefficient use of resources, on both an EU and state level, since the building of the pyramids. Since no farmer could survive on what they produce alone, surely they shouldn't be in business at all? I understand the rationale behind protecting industries- employment and export earnings- but if I was a farmer, I'd be positively embarrassed to be engaged in a career that relies entirely on handouts from Brussels.

Not a bit of it. The IFA said that this report proves that farming in Ireland gets too little government help. Make of that what you will. Well, one understands vested interests wanting to retain a system that guarantees them a livelihood. And this does explain why most issues of the Farmers' Journal put protests over Brazilian beef imports on the front page- can't have people buying cheaper stuff, so they make out that it's inferior. It is, however, a continuing act of supreme political cowardice- on the part of both EU and American governments- that none will consider a reduction in support to farmers as part of a free trade deal like the Doha round. The problem is not that protection coddles domestic farmers, but that it does so at the expense of the developing world. We send aid to Africa, and flatter ourselves for so doing, while simultaneously refusing to allow their agricultural produce on our market, which is one of only a few avenues that could begin to lift these nations out of poverty in the long run. Reform of this situation is not an economic issue- it is a moral one.

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Nice trackies, M'Lud

Dr. Eoin O'Dell has posted a long and, as always, extensively researched piece on the abolition of wigs and gowns in the English courts. He quotes one chap opposing the move as mentioning "the importance of tradition, ritual, and mystique in contributing to judicial legitimacy". Being a judge or lawyer is more than any old job, dar leis. This is echoed in another post which calls it "a sad day for those of us who have always loved the pomp and circumstance of English justice".

All a bit Victorian, frankly, and calculated to confirm one's worst prejudices about the conservatism and high self-regard of the legal profession. I'm sure it may well be a nice feeling for the barristers and judges, but all that pomp and ritual is what helps make the system well nigh impenetrable to the common man. This is, of course, very important to the legal profession- how else to justify the swingeing fees they charge under monopoly conditions? Here in Ireland, Mr Justice Carney, a senior judge in the criminal division of the High Court, was rapped on the knuckles by Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court for reprimanding barristers over their dress. Carney had to be reminded that wigs are no longer compulsory in Irish courts (although last time I was in the Four Courts they were still very much in evidence). Dr. O'Dell wonders whether wigs and gowns are on their way out here as well. For the above reasons of ego, tradition and naked self-interest, I wouldn't be holding my breath.

Monday 23 July 2007

A few thoughts on Seanad reform

And so the counting has begun following the elections, such as they were, to the perennially ignored talking shop that is Seanad Eireann. The campaign to woo the electorate of a few thousand politicians and university graduates has largely been ignored by the media- and for good reason. No body of well paid and intelligent people is as irrelevant to Irish society as is the upper house of parliament. The nature of the Seanad is such that it is almost always controlled by the government of the day, although an opposition majority would barely impact at all, since the scent of real power has not been detected in the chamber since 1936, when the Free State Senate attempted to stand in the way of De Valera's constitutional juggernaut and was abolished. As Vincent Browne notes, 12 reports on reform have been tabled since its reincarnation in 1937, but not one acted upon. This is not surprising, given that a weak and compliant senate is handy for any government, but the rest of us might be forgiven for wondering why we are paying for such a lacklustre body. Better no upper house at all than an unreformed one- but what should a new-look Seanad be like?

Two seperate changes are needed: one in relation to form, the other in relation to function. The latter I will deal with in another post; my concern here is the manner in which Senators are elected. As things stand, 6 Senators are elected by the graduates of TCD and NUI, but no other third-level institution, despite a constitutional amendment in 1979 to make this possible. 11 are appointed directly by the Taoiseach, ensuring a built-in government majority in most cases. 43 are elected by councillors, TDs and outgoing Senators in an archaic system based on the vogue 1930's concept of corporatism. Each of the five panels is supposed to represent a societal grouping, ensuring that those elected represent specific interests rather than geographic locations, on the face of it an interesting idea. In practice, however, the limited electorate votes along party political lines, and so whoever gets a party's blessing on a particular panel gets in. Furthermore, there is no requirement to have any expertise in Culture, Agriculture etc, rendering the vocational aspect redundant.

There is a case to be made for the Seanad to be directly elected by the people, as John Gormley seems keen on. Some form of direct election is desirable, if only to focus public and media interest on an otherwise ignored body. The problem is that there is an inherent tension between democratic legitimacy on the one hand, and the protection of minorities on the other. In constitutional theory, similar issues arise in relation to the power of the courts: if judges have the power to strike down laws as unconstitutional, how zealous or reticent should they be in using this power, given that the people, through their directly elected representatives, have approved the measure? The tension that must permanently exist between the will of the majority and the rights of minorities is known in the United States as the Madisonian Dilemma, and is no less relevant here.


There is no perfect solution, but so long as we recognise that minority interests should be catered for, a new electoral system will have to retain some undemocratic elements. With this in mind, and considering the excellent records of the Senators they have provided in the past, the university seats should be retained. However, there is no good reason not to extend the vote to other university graduates. The simplest solution would probably to create a new constituency for DCU, DIT and the rest with two seats to fill, reducing Trinity and NUI to two seats also.

Taoiseach's appointees were simply Dev's way of ensuring that he or future leaders wouldn't be hampered in his work by a renegade upper house. Appointed members could nonetheless fulfill a vital modern role in getting minority voices, unlikely to make it in an election, into the Seanad chamber. A constitutional amendment compelling the Taoiseach to nominate on the basis of distinct categories would be perfect. That way we get not 11 failed or ambitious Dail candidates, but rather Senators representing Travellers, the disabled, immigrants, the diaspora, or whatever you're having yourself.

Independent voices guaranteed are thus; so what about the rest? Well, a little more democracy never hurt anyone, and an upper house which is mostly elected by national franchise has more legitimacy than the present arrangement. Besides, it shields the university seats from the charge of elitism if everyone else gets a vote for the Seanad as well, albeit in a different constituency. The last cross-party report on Seanad reform recommends that 20 be elected in a single national constituency by councillors, TDs and outgoing senators. The remaining seats (32 under their model, which envisages a rise in seat numbers to 65) would be done under a national list system. This latter has merit in that it provides for election, but not in the same manner as for the Dail, which should avoid producing a carbon copy of the lower house. In fact, I would propose that all non-university or Taoiseach's gift seats be filled in this way- cut out the middlemen, and let the electorate have their say directly. With so many seats now to be filled, a few constituencies might be better than a national one, but these should be as large as possible, maybe equivalent to the European Parliament boundaries. If nothing else, Seanad politics should remain above the level of the parish pump.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Screw politics

Yeah, well, I was going to do something on Seanad reform, which for some reason I find genuinely interesting, but Harry Potter intervened. Finished the last book at eight this morning, and life will never be the same again. Exquisitely crafted, superbly plotted, an emotional rollercoaster... all in all, a fitting end to one of the great works of literature of our time.

Monday 16 July 2007

Saying Slan to An Ghaeilge

Earlier this evening, Questions and Answers flirted briefly with the issue of the Irish language, following the leaking of a report which predicted the end of Irish as the Gaeltacht's lingua fraca within twenty years. Eamon Ó Cuív was asked whether he was embarrassed that only 46% of students in Gaeltacht schools can speak the mellifluous Gaeilge. The Minister fudged admirably, and was at pains to point out that the figures were in line with previous census findings. That may be, but the point is hardly whether or not they came as a surprise. It is rather that the Irish language is in terminal decline, and has been since the 19th century.

Mr. Ó Cuív points to the total number of Irish speakers, which has risen by over a million people since the turn of the century. Granted, but of those 1.7 million people only about 85,000 claim to speak the language on a daily basis outside of education, with a further 100,000 reporting weekly use. There are 64,000 Irish speakers left in the Gaeltacht, and even there they are only 70% of the total population. With this in mind, it hardly seemed necessary to spend over €500,000 euro to reach the conclusion that the language may be in trouble.

The strength of the consensus among Irish politicians of all stripes, that Gaeilge must be cherished and preserved at all costs, is matched only by their total inability to do anything about it. No policy has yet been successful in halting the decline of Irish as an everyday spoken language. It is unlikely, at this stage, whether any top-down government initiatives can have the desired effect. However, if radical steps are taken, there may be life in the old teanga yet.

This does not mean that Irish and Irish speakers should be showered with ever more resources and benefits. The status already afforded Irish by the State means that fluent speakers are well endowed with ways to profit by their native tongue: exam bonuses at Leaving Certificate, grants for those living in Gaeltacht areas, any number of jobs in government-subsidised state bodies, newspapers and broadcast media. The argument that Irish speakers get a bum rap- the rationale behind the Official Languages Act- does not really stand up to scrutiny.

Irish language policy needs a good dose of reality. Irish may be the first language of the state under the constitution, but in reality it is a minority persuation, and needs to be recognised as such. Compulsory Irish for the Leaving Certificate, for example, is completely counterproductive. The education system churns out people able to speak the language, but with no desire to, and often harbouring resentment towards it (the name of Peig Sayers still sends a chill down the spine of a generation of school-goers). This report by the European Commission notes that:

"All Irish children continue to learn Irish in both primary and postprimary school as a subject, but despite some thirteen years experience in the case of the average child, these programmes do not generally produce highly competent active users of Irish". (section 2.1)

Indeed, enforcing Irish through total immersion in primary schools was persued vigorously by successive governments up until the 1950's, when it was realised that such methods were failing abjectly in making us all "not free merely, but Gaelic as well". The lesson we should learn from past experience is that pushing Irish too hard does nobody any favours.

So by "radical steps", I really mean take Gaeilge off the life support machine, and see what happens. Remove it as a compulsory subject in schools, end preferential treatment for Gaeltacht areas and Gaelscoileanna, stop subsidising Irish-language media, and see what happens. The results can't be worse than previous policies of compulsion and hysterical promotion. A language only dies out if people don't wish to speak it any more. Charles Flanagan of Fine Gael, speaking on Q&A tonight, noted that an MORI poll (also mentioned here) in 2004 found that "92 per cent of Irish people say promoting the Irish language is important to the country, themselves, or both". If the people are serious about rescuing Irish, then let them step up to the plate now. Government throwing money at the problem is a tried and tested failure.

Edit: There's a similar but more well-developed argument for the "disestablishment" of Irish here.

Sunday 15 July 2007

Diarmuid and Jim: nobody cares

There has been another gangland-style murder in Dublin, which comes hard on the heels of two other killings over the weekend. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has weighed in. Speaking at a mass this morning, he called for "a summit of community leaders" to deal with the "emergency" that the current homicide rate represents. Fine Gael, anxious to burnish their law 'n order credentials, have spoken up too, offering "constructive opposition" and pledging "a positive response" to any proposals that they feel will improve the situation.

Frankly, none of this is calculated to inspire your correspondent with confidence. The Church is entitled to speak up on such matters if it wishes, but why do any of its pronouncements need to be reported in the media? I'll listen to the bishops when they talk about religious or spiritual matters, but its credibility on social issues is next to nil these days. That the likes of the Irish Times slavishly share the bishops' opinions with the rest of us gives them a weight that they do not deserve.

As for Jim O'Keeffe, what a nice man! Constructive opposition, indeed... what was he doing beforehand? Attacking every proposal because it had a Fianna Fail stamp on it? Well, maybe. It goes without saying, one would have thought, that suggestions from government that look likely to cut crime would be welcomed by the opposition. I suppose he just wanted to change tack a little, not be seen to be lambasting the government at such a time. But what comes out of this statement is either: "We were acting irresponsibly as an opposition for the last ten years", or, more likely, "I've got nothing of substance to say but we need something to go in the papers". Either way, it doesn't say much for the calibre of our opposition.

Friday 13 July 2007

Man's worst enemy

Dublin City Council has recently banned 11 breeds of dog in houses and flats under its control. The rationale is understandable; these breeds are considered dangerous, have been the source of complaints from other residents, and would compromise the council legally in the event of a serious attack. In England, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 provides for a ban on the breeding, sale or possession of certain breeds. In this jurisdiction there is no comparable legislation- although the Control of Dogs Act 1986 allows for dangerous individual animals to be destroyed- which may be why the local authority felt compelled to act off its own bat.

Was it right to? Any measure which limits individual freedom should be scrutinised closely, to be sure; and the fact that only council houses are affected seems a little unjust. Private homes can still hold as many Pit Bull Terriers, Rottweilers or Alsatians as they want. Even they will not be able to be walked on council property- i.e. public parks- if the council implements planned changes in its by-laws.

The DSPCA points out that dangerous dogs are to be found "among any breed or crossbreed", so singling out a few notorious ones may not be particularly effective. They also claim that proper implementation of existing rules on muzzling etc would help the situation greatly. But somewhat puzzlingly, and apparently with a straight face, they say:

"A simple solution would be to require mandatory neutering, microchipping and guardianship registration for dogs placed on the list".

Christ. I'd hate to see their idea of a complicated solution. The ban on these creatures may be a blunt instrument, but if it prevents even one or two attacks then it's justified. They're not taking away the right to own a dog, after all, and it beggars belief that people would want a potentially vicious animal like a pit bull around the place anyway. After all, what's wrong with a poodle?

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Take a bow, Michael Cullen of Sandycove

As a veteran of the Irish Times letters page myself, I was mightily impressed by this chap, who asked Madam Editor whether the proposed Seanad voting pact between Sinn Fein and Labour will be known as "guns 'n roses".

Tuesday 10 July 2007

All in all you're just another nail in the coffin

The obituary writers will be out in force tomorrow, as Tom Parlon's decision to leave the PDs sinks in. The former Minister of State will take up a post with the Construction Industry Federation- more on the ethics of this move anon. Mr. Parlon seems intent on sampling all the delightful interest groups that hold sway in Irish politics; having been head of the Irish Farmers' Association, he now moves on to the construction industry. All that remains now is for him to open a pub. Of more immediate concern, however, is what this development means for the Progressive Democrats.

Seldom has any party been at such a low political ebb. Following the May general election, only 2 TDs remain to them. One of the their trustees, Paul Mackay, has already resigned. The leadership of the third party of government is seen as such a glittering prize that none of Liz O'Donnell, Mary Harney, Noel Grealish or Parlon want it at all. The successor to heavyweights like Des O'Malley, Mary Harney and Michael McDowell was always going to face an uphill battle. Parlon was, however, more suited to it than most. A grassroots politician in the finest Fianna Fail traditions, he is credited with greatly swelling the PD membership in his erstwhile constituency of Laois/Offaly. There was no-one more suited to rebuilding the PDs from the bottom up.

The remaining contenders are an uninspiring bunch. Senator Tom Morrissey, a Fine Gael defector, has unsuccessfully contested four general elections and one by-election. In 2007, he secured a risible 2.55% percent of the vote in Dublin North, rather less than Socialist Party comrade Clare Daly. Colm O'Gorman did a great job as director of One in Four, picking up a clutch of awards in recognition of this, but quite how this makes him the best man to press the case for open markets and liberal social policy is hard to say. A high profile is no substitute for intellectual substance that Harney and McDowell, like them or loath them, had in spades. He too failed to impress the electors at his first outing in Wexford. Fiona O'Malley also indicated her intention to run last month. Observers of RTE's election coverage will recall that she was remarkably chirpy for a woman who had just been given her marching orders by the notoriously fickle electorate of Dun Laoghaire. Such optimism will stand her in good stead if she gets the nod; but Dessie's daughter is best known for her attachment to condoms and wind power. An engaging personality, it's nonetheless hard to see her having the mass appeal and stamina to drag her party back from the dead.

For what it's worth, there's still a place for the PDs on the political landscape in terms of policy. In some ways they were the victims of their own success; their economic philosophy is now the orthodoxy within Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. But there is nevertheless ample scope for staking out their own territory in this regard, as both the "big tent" parties are compelled from time to time to leaven their capitalist recipe with some social justice for mass consumption. The nature of an open economy like ours is such that a slowdown is inevitable in the lifetime of the government; the PDs' past credibility on economic matters could stand them in good stead in future. Likewise, as the country becomes less religious and less conservative, the liberal social policies professed by Harney & Co. could win new converts, if only they were given greater weight.

However, all this will count for naught without a good leader to head it up. In Irish politics, a party can do without substance if it has sufficiant style, but substance without style is a recipe for disaster. Whoever takes the helm at South Frederick Street will need the skills of Bertie himself to make the PDs a viable electoral prospect again- but none of those in line to do so appear to have what it takes.

Saturday 7 July 2007

Great minds, and all that...

I'm allowing myself a small moment of self-satisfaction. In yesterday's post I said: "what happens to the Green vote at the next election is now heavily reliant on what Gormley and Eamon Ryan achieve at their respective Ministries". In today's Irish Times, their political correspondent Stephen Collins writes: "The future of the Greens rests on being able to point to distinctive achievements by their Ministers." Admittedly it doesn't take a genius to come to that conclusion, but it's always comforting to see a little evidence that I'm not writing complete crap. Great stuff.

Friday 6 July 2007

The Greens in government: the challenges ahead

John Gormley pledged today that he will review his department's stance in relation to "archaeological practice and policy". He also released the documents dealing with the site at Lismullen, which is on the route of the controversial M3 motorway. Such openness and transparency is to be welcomed; but the whole affair raises questions over how the Green Party are to handle themselves now that they have made, as Ciaran Cuffe put it, a "deal with the devil".

Put simply, the Greens did the right thing by going into government with Fianna Fail. They didn't get much, but then their bargaining position was weakened by the arithmetic; Bertie had the numbers to form a government without them. The choice, therefore, was to be inside the tent.... er, looking out, or be outside looking in. But what happens to the Green vote at the next election is now heavily reliant on what Gormley and Eamon Ryan achieve at their respective Ministries. If they can boast of some successes and point to some key shifts in policy, then they can go to the electorate and say: "Look, here's what we did with six seats, now give us a bigger mandate so that we can do more".

If however the pair turn in only mediocre performances, the party will suffer for it. Their own core voters will feel that the leadership sold out for nothing, and will stay home on election day. Those who voted and transferred Green in order to get rid of the outgoing government will see them as Fianna Fail lackeys. Fine Gael and Labour voters will withhold transfers.

Maintaining their seperate indentity within government will be crucial as well. Just as the PDs fret about being seen as a "downtown sub-office" of their coalition partner, the Greens need to avoid being merely the ecological wing of Fianna Fail. They may be bound by the June negotiations on issues such as the Dail summer recess and a Seanad voting pact (both in the news today), but in future a few hissy fits wouldn't go amiss. Standing up to Fianna Fail on a few well-chosen issues will go a long way toward shoring up their credibility with the voters.

The two Departments secured by the Greens (Environment and Energy), are ones close to their hearts. However, the flip side is that there is enormous scope for damaging publicity, as the Hill of Tara saga shows. Minister Ryan, likewise, needs to tread carefully in relation to nuclear power. The opposition, with Eamon Gilmore in the van, are doing their utmost to embarrass Gormley as he gets to grips with his new portfolio (more on that here). Such moves may well prove effective in winning in disillushioning Green supporters for whom the M3 and the US military use of Shannon, for example, are anethma.

If Bertie and Cowen have their way, the Greens will get subtly blamed for any all ills that befall this administration- just as happened to the PDs before them. (For example, if the climate change issue becomes pressing and decisive action is taken, Fianna Fail will happily take credit for saving the environment, while shifting blame for any adverse effects on the economy onto the tree-hugging, sandal-wearing Greens.) The challenge for the new leader is not to let this happen.

Today's developments bode well for Minister Gormley and his party. He has already scored a hit at his first EU engagement, which signalled a shift in Irish government policy on incineration. Likewise, Trevor Sargent has been making the right noises on GM foods. More of the same is needed. As Michael McDowell once said about the PDs, the Green Party needs must be "radical or redundant".

Thursday 5 July 2007

Gangland crime and how not to solve it

There was another gangland shooting today in one of Dublin's leafier suburbs; in Stillorgan, disturbingly close to where I write now, a man was pushed from a car having been shot in the head. It has been attributed to the ongoing feud in Crumlin (how they can establish this so quickly is beyond me), which Conor Lally mentioned in the Irish Times a couple of weeks ago:

"In the adjoining south Dublin suburbs of Crumlin and Drimnagh, a dispute between local teenagers over a burnt-out motorbike has spiralled out of control, resulting in 10 deaths since 2001 as some of those involved have become major drug dealers."

The link to the feature article (sub needed) is here.

What can be done about all this? The answer is surely not more legislation, or to blame the judiciary. Michael McDowell liked to boast about how he was the most legislatively active Minister for Justice ever. Fine, but more laws do not, in and of themselves, change a thing. The best example of this came when, following much publicity about attacks with blood-filled syringes in the mid-90s, the Government introduced several sections in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 that specifically targeted this new trend. Never mind that stabbing someone with a syringe, or even threatening to, was perfectly prosecutable under any number of existing laws. Never mind that statistics did not show that syringe attacks comprised any significant portion of robberies or assaults. The object was to be seen to be doing something about the threat. Needless to say, the sections have hardly ever been used, and the menace of syringe attacks vanished from the public imagination as quickly as they entered into it.

Blaming judges is not helpful either. They do the job put before them, objectively and taking into account all circumstances of the particular case, which outsiders do not have to. Even if you make them give tougher sentences, as the Criminal Justice Act 2007 provides for, that may not be much of a threat to hardened criminals. As one criminologist put it in Lally's report:

"If you are not bothered by the thought that your enemy's bullet is on the way or you may end up at the end of their knife you are not going to be concerned about what penalties you'll face"

Besides, these gangland "hits" are unlikely to end up before the courts anyway. There were 27 gangland murders in Ireland last year, but the detection rate for was a pretty pathetic 16%, according to the Labour party. The conviction rate for murders with firearms between 1998 and mid-2006 was just 17%. A scathing commentary on the Criminal Law Bill by the Law Library made it plain that:

"Society and the body politic must ask itself which is more important, reducing the level of offending and increasing detection and prosecution rates or being seen to be tough on crime...One’s own political whims or fancies, or earnest political convictions should not be allowed [to] trump reason or research in their entirety."

Lally's argument, made in a February article, is persuasive. He writes:

"the only way to tackle the subculture of gangland crime is to reduce the numbers becoming involved in it. This requires massive expenditure on at-risk children on the vast estates of Dublin or Limerick when these children are still at preschool age."

Better police work solves crime in the short run. Progressive social policy solves crime in the long run. More laws just look good; they don't solve a damn.

Monday 2 July 2007

Sinn Fein and electoral fraud

Interesting to see Sean O'Rourke mention allegations of past vote rigging to Sinn Fein councillor Padraig Mac Lochlainn on The Week in Politics earlier this evening. Apparently it's been suggested in some quarters that the decline in the Sinn Fein vote may be partly explained by the clean-up in the electoral register that preceeded the election. O'Rourke cited Dublin Central, where the party dropped about 1800 votes despite having a very high-profile candidate in MEP Mary Lou McDonald. Similarly, Sean Crowe lost his seat in Dublin South West, having topped the poll in 2002, shedding 2,500 votes along the way. He put it to Mac Lachlainn that people who were previously able to engage in electoral fraud on previous occasions were weeded out this time around.

The Donegal man gave this short shrift, naturally, noting with a touch of weariness that Sinn Fein have been accused of such practices before in the North. The only mention I can find of it going on down here is in this post on the United Irelander blog. FF backbencher Sean Ardagh accused Sinn Fein of registering non-existent voters, and Bertie weighed in with a story of a house in his constituency that had 80 people registered in it.

Hard to prove and, it seems, not a major problem any more if it did go on. Still, it provides a more interesting explanation of the Sinn Fein collapse than the "squeeze of the small parties" mantra or blaming Gerry Adams for letting the side down in the leaders' debate.

Saturday 30 June 2007

All hail the Celtic Tiger

The Economic and Social Research Institute has published a new book on the, well, economic and social effects of the Celtic Tiger. The basic theme is that pessimism over what the economic boom has done to society is unfounded, based more on anecdote than evidence. Even those much-maligned new suburbs aren't quite as soulless as people make out.

Income inequality hasn't worsened at all, they say:
"It is more accurate to say that the gap between the top and bottom of the social ladder has failed to narrow. It helps that the entire ladder has been raised onto higher ground". So a rising tide really does lift seem to lift all boats. This view is borne out in this paper from a few years back; it found that the "Gini coefficient", measuring income inequality, actually fell slightly duriing the key boom period from 1994-1997, meaning that things became slightly more equitable. In the late 80's, by contrast, we were the worst in the OECD.

To quote the authors: "the 'gloomy view' of the social consequences of prosperity - such as greater social inequality, looser community ties and a rise in materialism - is not supported by evidence". I think that the belief in all sorts of dire things befalling Irish society as a result of our newfound prosperity was always more intuitive than anything else; people felt that there had to be some downside to all this. It may have been based on a certain amount of guilt, because undoubtedly there are people that are still appallingly poor in this country. The lesson from this new research, however, is that there are now less of them and even they are a little better off.

A certain section of the commentariat would have had us believe that we were losing a certain something special in the rat race: "what does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?", as it were. Shopping is the new religion, all that sort of thing. I've always believed this to be nonsense, and I'm pleased to see this research going a long way toward proving it.

Part of the basis for this view may be that Irish nationalism, to which most people pay vague allegience, has always been founded to some degree on nostalgia for our rural, communal way of life. De Valera's "dancing at the crossroads" speech is the epitome of this thinking. The early visions of free Ireland were one of a country that was pius, provincial and poor- but at least without the Brits in it. There was never much room in our vision of ourselves as a country for a modern economy based on IT, pharmaceuticals and what have you. We're not anything like the priest-ridden, Irish speaking, subsistence farming race we were well into the 20th century- but an awful lot of people, in their heart of hearts, still believe that this is what "real" Ireland is all about.

The problem for me always was that the old days were also utterly miserable on a day-to-day level, no matter how wonderful community life may have been. And now the ESRI has shown that we are not only better off materially, we haven't really suffered spiritually either. We need to forge for ourselves a new national identity that better reflects the reality of today's Ireland: secular, pluralist, multicultural, and for God's sake English-speaking. That's the only way we can accept what the facts are telling us- that prosperous modern Ireland is actually a very good place to be. "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone", Yeats once wrote. It's time to let it rest in peace.

Thursday 28 June 2007

Fair and reasonable publication?

A quick legal interlude: Monica Leech lost her libel action against the Irish Independent earlier today. I saw a comment somewhere on the net (can't quite seem to find it again, unfortunately) to the effect that the Indo shouldn't have been liable for merely reprinting what someone else said on the radio. I can say with confidence that you can indeed be held responsible for reproducing a statement- which is a killer if you happen to to be much richer than the person who originally said it. An aggrieved plaintiff is likely to go after you on the simple grounds that they'll be more easily able to recover a tidy sum in damages.

This is unlikely to change any time soon, but some things in the murky world of libel trials may have to. The law of defamation is long overdue for an overhaul- according to most journalists, anyway. The link (sub needed) is to a considered piece from Fintan O'Toole, but I've seen the likes of Tom Humphries, a sportswriter, have a pop as well. Law professor Eoin O'Dell says on his blog that he has "long argued that Irish defamation law is in need of modernisation". The current Defamation Act dates from 1961, and although the law has scope to develop through judicial decisions, this is a slow process and relies to a large extent on English judges.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned since the election is the fate of the Defamation Bill 2006, which would update the law, if not perhaps reform it in any radical way. Although a Government Bill, which should mean that it gets passed now that they've been re-elected, the Minister responsible for its introduction is no longer at Justice (anyone remember Michael McDowell?). Hopefully this won't mean further delay in enacting the legislation- or, worse, that the government simply decides to forget all about it, although there's no real reason why they would. I suppose, having waited 46 years, those long-suffering hacks can afford to wait just a little while longer.

Edit: Dr. O'Dell seems to share my concerns about the fate of the Bill here, albeit that this was before the election took place. I've still yet to see any comment on what will happen now that the outgoing government has (more or less) been re-elected.

Hats off to a master

I'm outsourcing my rage at Beverley Flynn, and the system which produced her, to Mr. J.C. Skinner. This is one of the best polemics I've ever read.

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Will Gordon call?

Shockingly early though it was for the more nocturnal of us, I watched the inauguration of Gordon Brown on the BBC today. He was at pains in his speech to emphasise that his was a new regime, that people were tired of "the old politics". Obviously he wants to disassociate himself with the failings of the Blair government; a new-look cabinet may help him give the appearance of a fresh start.

The new PM mentioned the NHS, education, affordable housing... you might forgive a cynic for wondering what he was doing about those things over the past decade, when he was the second most powerful figure in the land. Good luck to him anyway.

Does all this matter much for us in Ireland? RTE certainly seem to think so, since their news coverage tonight is live from the Palace of Westminster. One of the opinion pieces in the Irish Times today frets that Mr. Brown may not pay as much attention to us in little old Ireland as did his predecessor. Engagement with Dublin is vital in terms of the Northern Ireland situation- this has been acknowleged at least since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985-and the opinion of Mr. O'Brien is that Brown is more inclined to go it alone when it comes to the North.

I would argue that there's really no need to worry. Northern Ireland is not an area that a prudent Prime Minister will simply "brush aside", because of the nightmare it can become if things get nasty. Besides, with the hard work done- for now- as regards the peace process, Brown will know that it'll do him no harm to be associated with such a success story. It's already seen as the most important part of Blair's legacy.

Secondly, Brown, in his manoeuvres ahead of announcing his first cabinet line-up, has indicated that the post of Northern Ireland Secretary will be a stand-alone position once more (Peter Hain has responsiblity for Wales as well). He's offered the job to Paddy Ashdown, a former Liberal Democrat leader who was UN High Representative in Bosnia- hardly the action of a man who sees Ireland as a non-issue. He got the cold shoulder, admittedly, but now has recruited the Conservative Quentin Davies, himself a former spokesman on Northern Ireland. We're also talking about the man who Paisley and McGuinness squeezed over a billion pounds out of as part of the restoration of devolved government.

Britain has always longed to disentangle itself from the "Irish question", of course, now that most people there no longer reciprocate the fanatical devotion of the Unionist minority. But Gordon Brown will not be the man who turns Britain's back on us.

Sunday 24 June 2007

Electing Beverley Flynn

A woman came into work the other day and was giving out about Beverley Flynn, who was in the papers over something dodgy to do with her holiday home- surprise, surprise. We agreed that it was a disgrace that such a person could be elected to the Dail. When I mentioned Michael Lowry as another example, she stiffened and said something like "Oh no, I'm from Tipp and he's done a lot of good work for us down there". It really was a breathtaking double standard.

Stephen Collins in yesterday's Irish Times mentions, with obvious frustration, "the apparent tolerance of a significant segment of the electorate for low standards in high places over the past 40 years". Nowhere is this more apparent than out in Mayo, where Ms. Flynn has just been re-elected. Her shenanigans were before my time, really, so it was pretty shocking went I went to look into it. This woman urged clients to evade tax; when RTE pointed this out, she sued in defamation. She lost and now faces bankruptcy, which would disqualify her for membership of the Dail. To remedy this, she mounts a constitutional challenge to the relevent legislation. RTE can whistle for its money; Beverley has other plans for her hard-earned cash. Laws, like taxes, are only for the little people, it would seem.

The result? Nearly 7,000 first preference votes.

Of course, this kind of carry-on seems to be in the genes. The first time Ms. Flynn was kicked out of Fianna Fail, it was for refusing to toe the line on a Dail motion asking her father, the redoubtable Pee Flynn, to explain his own dodgy dealings. Now welcomed back with open arms, she may take Junior Ministerial office in the lifetime of this government. So in the end, having a neck with more brass than an orchestra section pays off.

What a country. Electing crooks is a traditional part of democracy, of course, but usually the electorate only find out about it afterwards. You're not usually entitled to get caught and then carry on regardless. But in the former playground of Charlie Haughey, I suppose anything's possible when it comes to bog-standard standards in public life.

Thursday 21 June 2007

For Cod and Ulster

Your correspondent happens to have family from both north and south of the border that rends in twain this unhappy isle. He likes to believe that being of both Irish Catholic and Ulster-Scots Protestant stock gives him a unique perspective on the problems of Northern Ireland. What ever about that, I do at least get the latest jokes straight out of East Belfast. It's inevitably black humour. Before the late David Ervine was even cold, for example, I received the news that his son wanted his famous facial hair removed before burial. Why, ask puzzled mortuary staff. "Oh, it's the 'tash my father wore", says Ervine Jr. solemnly.

Anyway, the latest missive to wing its way south was a menu from a chipper called For Cod & Ulster. I'm probably behind the times, since they claim to have been featured on the BBC and UTV, and in the Sunday World, Sun, and Irish News. Patrons can choose a Drumcree, Lambeg or Red Hand if they're in a chicken mood, but if you're more of a beef fan, how about something from the "B" Specials? There's an Ian Paisley burger, or a Gerry Adams, which is just that little bit cheaper. If you've kids along, why not go for King Billy's Family Feast? They might just be pushing it with "David Healy Chips It In", however.

The menu is all in blue, white and red, naturally. It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. I suppose it's just another reminder of just how divided Northern Ireland is. There can be no progress on the constitutional question until hearts and minds are won over. The present arrangement solves the problem of terrorism in the short term, which is obviously wonderful. But both Good Friday and St. Andrews were Sunningdale for slow learners; we're now back to where we were in 1973, except that now nationalists have to be included in government. Does this ensure that unionists can no longer dominate and discriminate? Sure. It's still something of a sectarian carve-up. And it's not historic, to those with any sense of history. Historic would be revisiting the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

That's not going to happen until there's no longer such a rigid dichotomy between Unionist and Nationalist. A new report published this week shows that children born in the last decade are pretty much as divided as their parents and grandparents were. The "peace lines" that still riddle Belfast are a mute testament to the tension that still exists on the ground between Catholic and Protestant. Note that no-one is clamouring for these to be dismantled, yet they are far more important to a long-term rapprochement than military bases in south Armagh.

For Cod & Ulster invites people to "come in and relieve the history of NI on the big screen or read one of the many books on our culture". For all that they've got a picture of Gerry on their shutter, one imagines only one culture is being commemorated in there.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

Lenihan in charge of integration policy? Oh dear.

Conor Lenihan is now Junior Minister with Responsibility for Integrating the Immigrant Community. I have a number of problems with this appointment, but if I had to choose I'd cite his "kebabs" remark. In a Dail debate with Joe Higgins (RIP) in 2005, Lenihan appeared to cast this rather puzzling racial slur on the Turkish employees of Gama. Perhaps he was just trying to be funny; this Sunday Times profile, done in the wake of another of his slip-ups, claims that:

"Lenihan fancies himself as a parliamentary performer, and journalists in the Leinster House gallery have noticed that his gags are mostly directed at them. “When he says something he thinks is funny he sometimes tries to catch your eye and look for approval,” one political correspondent said. "

Nonetheless, its hard for this writer to shake the impression that Lenihan is one of the more serially ignorant politicians around, who owes his position more to the family brand than anything else. At the very least another position should have been found for him. Dealing with immigration requires a more subtle touch than Lenihan is possessed of. Or, to put it another way, he's a typical Fianna Fail gombeen. And gaffes aside, he didn't exactly cover himself in glory in his last post, at Foreign Affairs with responsibility for overseas development. On his watch, the government failed to honour its promise to give 0.7% of GNP as foreign aid by 2007. According to Liz O'Donnell, his PD predeccessor, Lenihan didn't even bother to put up a fight.

To be fair, maybe there is method in Bertie's madness. One of the three Departments that deal with immigration (the others being Community, Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs and Education & Science) is Justice, to which big brother Brian has just been appointed. Presumably he'll be keeping a watchful eye on Conor in his new job. We can be grateful for small mercies, anyway.

Tuesday 19 June 2007

A Catholic boys' club, too.

Continuing our look at the make-up of the new Dáil, provoked by today's Irish Times. Commenting on the recent elections to the French National Assembly, Lara Marlowe notes that "[b]y electing 18.54 per cent female deputies, France moved from 86th place internationally to 58th place". A quick calculation reveals that our own lower house is a stunning 13.25 per cent female. This means we are trounced by the famously progressive states of Sub-Saharan Africa, which have a 17.4% average, although we are 4% ahead of Arab nations, in some of which women cannot even vote. In terms of the rankings to which Ms. Marlowe was referring, we sit proudly at joint 81st.

Of all the parties, only Labour has a respectable proportion of the fairer sex in its ranks, with 7 of its 20 TDs being women.

To be fair, female representation isn't the be all and end all of a functioning state. Top of the list (with 48.8%) is Rwanda. Frankly, I'd prefer to take my lead on matters political from countries a little less prone to genocide.

I wonder whether there's a league table for religious diversity in national parliaments? Although we've come on in leaps and bounds in this regard, doubling the number of non-Catholic TDs in the 30th Dáil. We now have four. Great. Iran would be proud at such an homogeneous bunch. There's no official source for this, since religious affiliation is happily an electoral non-issue these days, but it's known that Seymour Crawford and Brian Hayes of Fine Gael are Protestants, as is Trevor Sargent, possibly the only Protestant to lead an Irish political party since Parnell. Another Fine Gael deputy, Alan Shatter, is of the Jewish persuasion. I know we're still an overwhelmingly Catholic country population-wise, but still...

Monday 18 June 2007

Politics: A Family Business

The birth of Captain Moonlight coincides with the formation of a new government, following a general election on May 24th. So how does one get to sink in to one of these coveted seats? Well, Daddy already having done so helps.

There are 166 TDs in Dáil Eireann. Of these, 29 are the sons and daughters of past deputies. A further 11 had other family members in politics to whom they owe their start in political life. Some, like Tom McEllistrom, have a pedigree stretching back three generations. The majority (26, if we include that latter-day Lazarus, Beverly Flynn) of this privileged 40 are from Fianna Fail; the rest are from Fine Gael with a handful of Labour. What is more, this may be a lesser figure than in the outgoing Dáil. I haven't crunched the numbers quite so assiduously, but we lost at least half a dozen with a familial background in politics, including Síle de Valera and both O'Malleys. One third of the new Cabinet (Lenihan, Hanafin, Coughlan, Cowen and Ó Cuív) fall into this catagory.

So a quarter of all TDs are a product of political "dynasties", which have to be one of the most unappealing things about Irish political life. It is of course widely recognised all politics are ultimately about the parish pump in this country. But there is nothing quite so sickeningly parochial as the spectacle of voters queueing up to elect Niall Blaney as the fourth in his line. These people may be efficient constituency operators in their own right, of course, but there are certainly cases where a candidate has been swept in on the strengh of name alone, like when Enda Kenny won the bye-election precipitated by the death of his father in 1975. And as Sean Sherlock showed in Cork East, that mindset is alive and well.

Not exactly democracy at its finest. It might remind some of a reasonably poor film called The Distinguished Gentleman, where a con man played by Eddie Murphy manages to get elected to Congress because he has the same name as the previous occupant. "Jeff Johnson: The Name You Know" was the slogan, and God help us that's pretty much how it goes up in Donegal North-East. The movie was a comedy, but this is supposed to be our legislative body. Surely there should be more qualifications to be in there than just surname.

First post

The Captain rides!

This blog is intended as a commentary on politics, current affairs and other aspects of Irish life. What it actually ends up becoming is anybody's guess.

Coming soon: actual posts. Bear with me, folks.