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.