The abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin in respect of their seats in the Westminster parliament has been thrown into the spotlight by the narrow majority held there by Theresa May’s Government, particularly as that majority depends for its existence on her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that the (self-inflicted) inability of the seven Sinn Féin MPs to argue and vote against Brexit in Westminster could have a long-lasting and damaging effect on all Irish people, north and south.

The Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take their seats as they will not swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen.  They are accordingly not allowed to draw an MP’s salary or pension, but they do claim substantial allowances for the costs of staff, offices and travel.  Although they will not enter the House of Commons chamber (and thus cannot vote on any issue being dealt with therein), in almost every other respect they act as normal MPs do, representing their constituents, holding clinics, and lobbying UK Government Ministers on relevant matters.

Given the high stakes involved in the Brexit issue, surely Sinn Féin should re-assess their abstentionist policy. They only need to look to Eamon de Valera’s pragmatic response in 1927 to a similar problem:  up until then, Fianna Fáil refused to take their seats in Dáil Eireann because that would have involved their taking an Oath of Allegiance (albeit a dilute and arguably ambiguous one) to the British Monarch.

However, the assassination of the Vice-President of the Executive Council, Kevin O’Higgins, led the Free State government under W. T. Cosgrave to (among other things) introduce the Electoral (Amendment) (No 2) Act .  This required every candidate to sign an affidavit stating that he or she would take their seat in the Dáil and sign the Oath if elected, or else face disqualification. Backed into a corner, de Valera and his fellow TDs overcame their supposedly inviolable principles by simply signing a book containing the oath, which they famously declared an “Empty Formula”, and were promptly admitted to the Dáil.

It would be in their constituents’, and Ireland’s, interests if Sinn Féin could adopt such a practical stance now; if they followed de Valera’s 1927 precedent, and took the historic step of overlooking this other “Empty Formula”, maybe the chances of overturning Brexit in Westminster would be materially improved.   How ironic if it were to be Sinn Féin which saved Britain from itself.

If Sinn Féin fail to act sensibly and take their seats, then surely it’s time for the UK Parliament to “do a W T Cosgrave” – that is to say, make it a requirement for all those standing for election to undertake to sign the Oath of Allegiance and take their seats, failing which they will be barred from standing at subsequent elections.

Advertisements

There was an interesting article recently by Noel Whelan in the Irish Times.  The article was about Sinn Féin and how it really isn’t a normal democratic political party.  It included mention of a topic, the significance of which had largely passed me by until now but which, to me at least, goes some way to explaining why there hasn’t been any progress in restoring the Stormont assembly. 

If Sinn Féin is to be believed its current leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, holds that position at the pleasure of the current party leader. When many of us queried the lack of internal party democracy involved in her appointment to the post by Adams a year ago, we were told the role is akin to any front bench appointment which any party leader would make.

But this is very strange. There is a power-sharing assembly at Stormont (or at least there is meant to be), and one of the main principles underpinning it is that the largest Unionist party in terms of parliamentary seats won and the largest Nationalist party in terms of parliamentary seats won are joined together in a complex mechanism whereby power is shared and decisions are taken jointly.  But the largest Nationalist party is led by a person who is not elected by their Stormont representatives, or even by their party members in Northern Ireland, or by some combination of these methods.

Instead he/she is appointed in some opaque manner by whoever happens to be leader of Sinn Féin, the 32-county party based in Dublin (currently Gerry Adams). And there is certainly no transparency as regards how Sinn Féin appoints its overall leader.  Indeed I suggest that it would be a brave TD who decided, without getting the nod from the “powers that be”, to stand against Mary-Lou McDonald for election as leader of Sinn Féin– and I mean physically brave.

But should the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland be appointed by the 32-county organisation? This means that Northern Ireland is governed in large part by an entity that is controlled by people outside Northern Ireland.   It seems fair to me to question whether, partly as a result of this anomaly, Sinn Féin has less than a total commitment to restoration of the Stormont executive.  If the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland leader didn’t hold office at the whim of Gerry Adams (soon to be replaced as overall party leader Dubliner Mary-Lou McDonald), would it negotiate more sensibly?  If that leader were solely answerable to its Northern Ireland MLAs and their constituents, would the power-sharing Assembly be back in business?

This set-up is akin to having a situation where the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party was appointed by, and removable by, Theresa May.  I can’t see that going down well with anybody on this island.

As ever, where Sinn Féin is involved, anomalies and contortions are the order of the day. At some time in the future, Sinn Féin may come to behave like a normal democratic political party. We certainly aren’t there yet.

 

Adrian Bourke, the brother of ex-president Mary Robinson, will presumably make a nice capital gain from the sale of his Ballina premises to Mayo County Council.  It’s supposed to be bought for €665,000 and be used as Ireland’s first presidential library, housing his sister’s papers.  However  recent reports suggest that the sale has stalled for reasons unknown.

In fact the whole project has come under fire recently, with RTE’s Prime Time last week raising various questions about whether this is a good use of public money, and historian Diarmuid Ferriter writing “If Robinson wants to encourage research into her career, or assessments of her legacy, she should follow the practice of her predecessors and donate her papers to the National Library, the National Archives or one of the national universities, without any need for tax credits or valuations by auctioneers and with no excessively expensive, publicly funded vanity centre.”  Ouch.

And Michael McDowell has raised similar concerns in his most recent Sunday Business Post contribution:  “Are all former office-holders to benefit by tax holidays based on donating their papers, documents and memorabilia to publicly funded ‘libraries’ in future? Or is this to be a one-off?   In my judgment, the Ballina scheme should be called off before it does further damage to Irish public life. And before it needlessly damages the presidency – not to mention damage to her own place in our history.”  Double ouch.

I’m tempted to ask why it has taken so long for these worthies to train their gaze on this project, which is being funded by the public purse to the tune of about €5 million.  Yours truly was a lot quicker into the fray, asking a few pertinent questions 11 months ago.

Mrs Robinson has also been in the news recently as she is selling her home in Mayo. The plug for the house in the Irish Times reveals that “Former president Mary Robinson and husband Nick are selling their Co Mayo home for €2.75 million. Massbrook, a 113 acre estate on the shores of Lough Conn, is located about 20 minutes from Mrs Robinson’s childhood home of Ballina, and has served as the couple’s primary Irish base since they purchased it in 1994.”

Those of you who (unlike me) are familiar with tax matters will be aware that the sale of one’s principal private residence is exempt from Capital Gains Tax (CGT).  However, the relevant legislation, section 604 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, provides that the exemption only applies to the residence plus its “garden or grounds up to an area (exclusive of the site of the dwelling house) not exceeding one acre“, so Mrs Robinson is presumably looking at a CGT bill, calculated at 33% of any gain she and her husband make on 112 of the 113 acres.  Based on an apportionment of the sale price being asked, I’m guessing that the gain might be in excess of €1 million, since the 1994 purchase price allowed as an offset would have been quite small.

However as the State has given her a tax credit of €2 million for “donating” her archive, she will not have to worry about handing over any of the sale proceeds to the Revenue Commissioners.  She will also presumably have plenty of tax credit left over to cover other tax liabilities – such as her Presidential pension, for instance?  On the other hand, wouldn’t it be great if she could let her brother share in the tax credit, so as to cover the profit he will make on the sale of his premises in Ballina?

 

 

 

I see that the Austrian parliament has passed reforms to the country’s century-old ‘Law on Islam’.  Amongst other provisions, the new law bans foreign funding for Islamic organisations.  Muslim groups say the ban on foreign funding is unfair as international support is still permitted for the Christian and Jewish faiths.  They are right, but only up to a point.

I find it unacceptable that any religion should be allowed to accept funding from external sources, just as most countries prohibit political funding from outside the jurisdiction.  If such funding is going to be allowed, then at least it should be excluded from the general tax exemption from which most religions benefit.

But where I would absolutely draw the line is where religions or religious lobby groups obtain direct or indirect funding from foreign governments, or foreign-government-sponsored entities.  Clearly in these situations the line between religion and politics has been crossed.  And this is where the Austrians have got it right: Islam is noteworthy for the fact that states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar give generous financial support to Islam (or particular strains of Islam) across the globe.  And unfortunately the type of Islam they are promoting is one where there is no separation between Church and State, and where the dictates of the Koran and the hadiths are considered to be justification for horrific crimes.

I would like to see a law in Ireland which (a) prohibits religions and religious organisations from receiving funding from foreign governments and (b) removes tax-exempt status from funding received from all non-residents, private or governmental.  This would incidentally stop any funding of the Catholic Church or Catholic organisations by the Vatican, as the latter claims to be a State, but this is something with which I could live …..

 

There is a head of steam building up in the UK and Ireland on the issue of reducing the minimum voting age for parliamentary elections to 16 or 17 from the current minimum of 18. Even the normally sensible Electoral Reform Society has weighed in behind the proposal. I think it is a very bad idea.

Yes, you can join the army before you are 18. But in the army you are told what to do, and you don’t have a say in how it’s run. In our democratic system, you as a voter have the right to tell the politicians what to do. And quite simply, 99.9% of 16 year olds haven’t a clue as to how to run a country.

Yes, 16-year olds pay taxes: income tax if they have income, and VAT on most stuff they buy. But so do 10-year olds , and we aren’t suggesting that they be allowed to vote.

Ask anybody in their twenties, thirties, forties or older whether their views on politics as a 16-year old were sensible and well-informed and you will find that the universal answer is NO. Many people are frankly embarrassed by the stuff they believed at that age.

I think 18 is the right age to set as the minimum voting age. It is an age of independence for many, when they go to university or start to work. It is the age at which people start to take responsibility for themselves. The legal age for buying alcohol or tobacco is 18.

If we allow votes at 16 or 17, what’s next? Many of the same arguments for votes at 16 can be applied for allowing 14-year olds to vote. Any mandated minimum age is necessarily arbitrary, but we have to have one, and 16 is frankly too low.

You may think that I am on occasion anti-public sector in my pronouncements (actually I’m not; I just think that Irish public sector management is lazy and inefficient and provides poor leadership).  Anyway, compared to the guy quoted below, I am a pussycat.

Dr J C Lester argues that only (net) taxpayers should be allowed to vote, thus ruling out state sector employees!

Why should people who are not taxpayers be allowed to vote money away from those who are? If we must have state services, it should at least be for those who pay for them to vote for which services they want and how much they wish to pay. To allow those providing, or living off, the services to vote is like allowing a shopkeeper to vote on what you must buy from him, or a beggar to vote on what you must give him….

… Consider state distribution of tax-money. We can see that this must create two social categories: those who are net taxpayers and those who are net tax recipients. Only the net taxpayers can be said to provide the state with tax-funds. The net tax recipients are paid out of taxation, plus any payments in newly created state-currency (which effectively taxes those who hold money). So to the extent that people are in the pay of the state they cannot be genuine taxpayers. A proof of this is that if their jobs were abolished the state would have more money to spend elsewhere, unlike those jobs in the genuinely taxpaying sector.

The writer, Jan Lester, is a leading member of the Libertarian Alliance.  The public sector seems to be a prevalent theme of writing on the LA website.  Its home page currently has a lead article by D.J. Webb called “Living off our Taxes”, of which the introduction gives a flavour:

There is nothing more frustrating than having to pay tax and national insurance so that public-sectors workers can earn more than you. People in the private sector face greater job insecurity and have less lavishly funded pension arrangements, where such arrangements even exist, and yet they are the golden goose that has to be repeated slaughtered in order that state workers can have secure and higher-paid jobs with astonishingly generous pension provision.

In case you were wondering, Webb was writing about the United Kingdom, not Ireland.  But, let’s be honest, he could have been writing about Ireland.

At least it’s bad news for Obama.  His best hope for re-election as POTUS was to have as an opponent a bonkers Tea-Party type (pardon the tautology).

His next best hope is that Michelle Bachmann is selected as the Republican contender.  In terms of who would be the ideal head-banger for Obama to have as an opponent, Bachmann runs Palin a close second.  The evidence for her madness is not hard to find, but I particularly like the following example, quoted from an article in the New Yorker, August 2011:

In the spring of 2009, during what appeared to be the beginnings of a swine-flu epidemic, Bachmann said, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

Rick Perry is a paragon of sanity and erudition by comparison with Palin and Bachmann.