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.