I was thinking of running for the next Dáil with the following manifesto.  It seems bonkers, of course, as I would be promising not to do all the things that have become de riguer if one wants to have a hope of election as a TD.

  1. I will not put purely local constituency interests before national interests.
  2. I will not help you to jump a queue for spurious reasons.
  3. I will not help you get something to which you are not in principle entitled.
  4. I will not hold “clinics” – here are my contact details – please make an appointment to see me, or send me an email,  if it’s important.
  5. If you want assistance on a purely local government matter, well here’s a list of all the local government representatives.  Don’t bother me about it….. Read the rest of this entry »

FF and “high moral ground”

21 September, 2010

A bitter laugh was to be had from a remark on Eamon Dunphy’s radio show on Newstalk last Sunday.

A panel member (I think it was Ger Colleran of the Irish Daily Star), contrary to the rule that dog does not eat dog,  was giving out about Kathy Sheridan’s Irish Times’ article about Garglegate, and about its coverage of Fianna Fáil generally.  The words he chose to condemn the Irish Times were so revealing: he said that they were always taking “the high moral ground”.

These particular words are usually heard from Fianna Fáil politicians or their apologists and, you no doubt realise, they are intended to be a severe criticism

That sums up the ethical morass that passes for public discourse in Ireland and in Fianna Fáil in particular.  To adopt the high moral ground is to be deviant, elitist, priggish and judgemental (the last being used in its now-normal pejorative sense, although of course the continuation of civilisation depends on people making value judgements, and acting upon them, every day of their lives).

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be sitting (standing?) on the high moral ground.  In most parts of the world, that would signify that one is taking the side of the good guys, and not the sinners and criminals.  Obviously we do things differently in Ireland.  Or at least they do in Fianna Fáil.

It’s enough to turn me into a feminist. 


 According to Wikipedia, a tragedy of the commons  is

…. a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was first described in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in1968……

Central to Hardin’s article is an example …. of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

Harding in 1968  was writing about how to deal with the population problem, but his words resonate for proponents of constitutional and electoral reform in Ireland.

Considering in isolation the localised and short-term interest of an individual voter in a general election in Ireland, it’s not too difficult to make out a case for voting for somebody like John O’Donoghue, Jackie Healy Rae, Pádraig Flynn or Willie O’Dea.  They all are, or were, masters at getting things for their constituency and constituents, while being completely useless and profligate when judged on a national level.

The ridiculously over-specified roads in Castlebar were a tribute to Pee Flynn’s focus on his constituency, even at the expense of the national exchequer.  And when then Minister John O’Donoghue pumped €5.5m  from his Sports Capital and Local Authority Swimming Pools fund into the Killarney Sports and Leisure Project swimming pool, it didn’t seem to matter that the town already had several swimming pools available  for use by the public, or that many communities in towns and cities around the country had no money at all available for a swimming pool.  O’Donoghue’s pool subsequently closed due to lack of members availing of it, but not before this classic pork-barrel project had consumed shedloads of taxpayer money.

There are thousands of such examples, and the reader doesn’t need me to enumerate them – as they say, the dogs in the street know the score.  In terms of Hardin’s analogy, voting for John O’Donoghue is like putting another cow on the common land; the individual voter receives the benefits from the additional “cow” through constituency goodies, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire Irish population.

Our electoral system is the problem.  Former FG minister Gemma Hussey, in an article in the Irish Times last year wrote that:

We have in Ireland an electoral system, multi-seat proportional representation, which almost ensures that a broad range of the best brains and achievers in the country will never see the inside of Leinster House, much less the Cabinet room. At the same time, we have too many Dáil members….. The skills required to massage a constituency seven days and nights a week have nothing to do with running a small European country with an open economy….. Most modern democracies of western Europe have some variant of a list system, combined with proportionality. This means that the voter may choose to vote for a party list, which will be written up in the polling booth. Distinguished and/or well-known citizens from a variety of walks of life will have been chosen by their parties to head up their lists. Side by side there are opportunities to vote for individuals too.

On the basis that one should never waste a good crisis, there will never be as good a time as this to change an electoral system that is failing us as a country.  If we don’t change the way we elect our politicians, then it is a certainty that further crises lie ahead. 

Changing the system is a challenge, although both Fine Gael and the Green Party have publicly flirted with a partial list system.  Yes, opponents pick holes in the list system approach, but no system is perfect, and Hardin’s words on the need for change are apposite:

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. …. worshippers of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal…… But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produce evils.

The Irish Times reported the other day that AIB’s managing director Colm Doherty had described the price paid for their Polish bank – which Mr Doherty called their “jewel in the crown” – as “a very fulsome price”.

I actually saw him being interviewed on television, using the same word, and I winced.

My gold standard in dictionaries is The Chambers Dictionary, and it defines “fulsome” as meaning “sickeningly obsequious; nauseatingly affectionate, admiring or praiseful”.  In fairness, it goes on to add “loosely: copious or lavish; excessive; (eg of a voice or a woman’s figure) well-developed, well-rounded”.

I suffer from a sad affliction: whenever I hear people use “fulsome” when they mean “full”,  I automatically pigeonhole them as intellectually defective.  This is an unforgiveable trait, but there you go.

Yes, I know that usage has evolved and that a secondary meaning (copious, lavish) has become apparent in everyday parlance.  But if you are the chief executive of a partly-nationalised and controversial bank, witha  salary of €500,000 a year, I expect you to be aware of the original, standard meaning of such words, and avoid using them in the “wrong” context.  Why piss off pedants like me when there are perfectly good alternatives words available ?

Great piece of work

10 September, 2010

I just have to recommend that you go to the interactive chart at this site, which allows you track, over time, for the various nations of the world, movements in factors such as the per-capita income and the average life expectancy at birth.  It’s an incredibly powerful and interactive tool.

You can simply select a country, or a number of countries, from the list on the right hand side, and press “play”; however for a demonstration of the full power of the site, I recommend you click on “How to use” for a 2-minute demo.

I have commented before (for instance here, and here) on how the EU pays lip service to the principle of subsidiarity, while in practice it seeks to expand continuously the range of areas over which it takes action.  Almost every month there are fresh examples of matters that should be dealt with at national level, but on which the EU sees fit to initiate legislation.  A good example surfaced today.

Belgium wants to use its EU presidency to underline the key societal role played by companion animals like dogs and cats, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister for Health and Social Affairs Laurette Onkelinx announced yesterday (9 September)…… “During our country’s presidency of the Council, we are underlining the important role of companion animals in civil society,” said Onkelinx, speaking at the launch of a website on dog welfare in Brussels.  “Dog and cat overpopulation creates a lot of suffering for unwanted animals,” she added, explaining that “sharing information and experience is the basis for every development in animal welfare, and here, for a Europe-wide solution and strategy to create an appropriate and responsible attitude by us humans towards animals”.  Onkelinx pointed to the Treaty of Lisbon, Article 13 of which reads “the [European] Union and the member states shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals,” as a possible basis for further EU action in this area.

It’s no wonder that EU citizens have to stump up €8 billion a year (out of a total EU budget of €130 billion) to pay for the cost of administration – it must take a lot of Commission officials to look after Fido’s welfare.

Disclaimer follows …..  In citing the above example, I am making no statement as to whether or not I think the effect of any proposed legislation is good or bad (it would presumably be good, on balance); only that I think national legislatures should be responsible for enacting it (or not enacting it).   So please don’t attack me, dog-lovers and cat-lovers!

Today’s Irish Times has an interesting (but not particularly unusual) juxtaposition of stories from around the world.

On page 11, the aftermath of an earthquake in New Zealand is given extensive coverage, amounting to almost half a page.   Number of fatalities incurred: zero.

On page 8, details of a riverboat fire in Congo are (barely) given – three column inches I would estimate. Estimated number of fatalities incurred:  200.

So to sum up, it’s big news if there is a non-fatal earthquake in a small white, rich, country on the other side of the world.  But it barely justifies a mention if 200 poor black people are killed in an accident in a country which is a lot closer to home.

This is not a criticism of the Irish Times (for once), as I am confident that they are accurately reflecting the news demands of their readers. 

But it starkly shows how we regard Africa generally: a place so full of death, disease, famine and downright brutality that we don’t really want (or need?) to know  about the latest disaster, even if 200 deaths are involved.  There are just so many horror stories one can be exposed to, before fatigue and numbness sets in. (A lesser, domestic, example is the fact that many Irish people have stopped reading to and listening to the domestic news because it is so unrelentingly gloomy on the financial and political front.)

Sub-Saharan Africa is such a dreadful mess (with one or two honourable exceptions) that the Western world is in danger of losing interest.  Maybe the Chinese can sort it out.

One: the current population of Ethiopia is 85 million.  In 1985, when we all gave so generously to Band Aid and Live Aid to help deal with widespread famine, the population was about 40 million.   By the year 2050, according to Population Reference Bureau estimates,  Ethiopia’s population will increase to about 169 million people.  Some 14 million Ethiopians already have difficulty finding enough to eat, including, according to UNICEF, 62,000 children under the age of five.

Two: the population of Pakistan is currently estimated at 185 million.  At current fertility rates, and all else being equal (admittedly that’s quite a big qualifier, as recent flood deaths show), it will rise to 460 million by 2050 (source: UN demographic projection).

As far as quality of life on earth is concerned, we are watching a slow-motion car crash.  And fundamentalists from the political left and the political right, and from most religions, are blocking any sensible discussion of the problem.

This is a monstrous Tragedy of the Commons, which will have a profound effect on the lives of our children.