It’s interesting to see that Frances Fitzgerald is still talked about as a potential new leader of Fine Gael, although most commentators continue to have Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney as favourite.

No doubt the Irish Times and its cohort of battle-hardened female journalists will do all in their power to keep her name in the frame. They must feel that this is the least they owe to somebody who was Chair of the Council for the Status of Women from 1988 to 1992.  You may recall the embarrassingly obsequious profile that the IT’s Kathy Sheridan produced in November 2014 and on which I commented less than favourably in this piece.

Now Frances Fitzgerald is certainly not the least capable of the Government frontbenchers, and I don’t think we need to feel unsafe in our beds at night just because she’s Minister for Justice and Equality. But she doesn’t strike me as having the energy or drive which a real reforming Minister would need for tackling (for example) the corruption and dysfunction that currently seems to infect An Garda Síochána.  She certainly doesn’t seem to have done much about it in the 3 years for which she has been responsible for them.

Incidentally, a wicked friend of mine went so far as to suggest that if either our Minister for Justice or our Garda Commissioner were a man, then the latter would have been pushed aside ages ago as a result of the whistle-blower controversy, but (his outrageous theory goes) the sisterhood values loyalty so highly that Frances Fitzgerald will give Noirín O’Sullivan whatever space she needs.

Her 3-year tenure as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, from 2011 to 2014, didn’t seem to be a resounding success either, although in fairness it did coincide with the depths of the recession. At the time of the aforementioned flattering Irish Times article I wrote: “… she, as Minister for Children for the past 3 years, might have been slightly embarrassed by the proximity in the Weekend Review of another article, this one about child poverty, which starts with the words ‘Before the recession, Unicef ranked the State as one of the 10 best places to be a child.  Now it is one of the worst, ranked 37 out of 41 countries.’”

Now that I think of it, she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, was established with much fanfare in 2014. Yes, that’s the same Tusla that has been so much in the news recently as a result of their “administrative error” which led to spurious child-abuse allegations being created against whistle-blower Garda Maurice McCabe.  Small world, isn’t it?

This is the same Tusla which, on its launch 3 years ago, asserted boldly that “This Agency will tell it as it is”.  A bit unfortunate, that claim.

That’s also the same Tusla which, like all State agencies, believes it needs more resources if it is to do its job properly. Now I don’t know enough about the details of their work to know if 4,000 employees and an annual budget of €600 million is skeleton-level funding or otherwise.  But it seems like a lot of resources in a country having a total population of 4.8 million, of whom maybe 1.2 million are aged under 18.

The promotional brochure for its launch has further hostages to fortune, all sounding hollow in the light of the Garda McCabe embarrassment:

Respect – We will always treat everyone — children, families and colleagues — with dignity and consideration.

Integrity – We will be reliable and trustworthy in the way we carry out our work by: Adhering to the highest standards of professionalism, ethics and personal responsibility. Placing a high value on the importance of confidentiality. Acting with conviction and taking responsibility for our decisions.

I don’t particularly want to knock Tusla, as it is doing a lot of fine work, and any failings it has are probably replicated in most other State agencies. I cite all the above merely to suggest that actions, or lack of action, by Ministers should have consequences in the real world.  And anybody who wishes to be considered as a potential Taoiseach should expect that their past record and achievements will be held up to the light for the public to judge their ability fairly.

That goes for women, too.

 

We have heard a lot in Ireland recently about politicians and their consciences.  Famously, Lucinda Creighton broke with Fine Gael as she wouldn’t follow the party whip and support the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill last year.  She asserted the need to follow her conscience, which apparently was telling her that the Catholic Church’s hard-line position on abortion had to be followed.  Many people’s reaction to stances such as that of Lucinda is to say something like: “I don’t necessarily agree with the views of Mr/Ms X, but I admire him/her for taking a stand on a matter of conscience”.

But this is a superficial analysis.  Because the essence of Lucinda’s stance is to deny all Irish women the very thing she insists on having herself, namely freedom of conscience on the issue of abortion.  And abortion is a matter of conscience.  It’s not like murder or theft or arson, matters on which there is a consensus in all civilised societies, regardless of religious beliefs, and against which we properly (and indeed necessarily) legislate.

Lucinda obviously believes that her conscience must be given greater weight than those of hundreds of thousands of women in Ireland who believe that women should be allowed have an abortion in Ireland, whether because of Fatal Foetal Abnormality, because of a pregnancy arising from rape, or for any other reason that their conscience permits.

As Gene Kerrigan has so aptly written,

It’s possible to have a personal position against abortion – which means you will not have an abortion; you hold that abortion is wrong. And at the same time to have a political position – which is that every woman should have the right to make that choice based on her conscience. Not yours or mine.   Otherwise, you’re saying no one has a right to do anything except what my conscience allows….

…There are women who just don’t – for reasons that are not your business or mine – wish to go through with a pregnancy they never wanted.  We may disagree with them, but we do not have a right to speak for their conscience.

Imagine it was the other way around – that people who are in conscience opposed to abortion were required to undergo abortions, because – for instance – the state imposed a policy on the number of children allowable.

Lucinda exiled herself from Fine Gael as she wanted to retain the status quo for our ultra-punitive abortion laws instead of making the marginal relaxation which the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill involved.  Following your conscience cannot be a “get-out clause” for doing bad things or (and this is key) for refusing similar latitude to other people whose reasoned and informed consciences tell them something completely different.

Dr Ryan Walter, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, wrote a fascinating article (“Conscience votes corrupt our political system”) on the relationship between politics and public representatives’ consciences.  It was in the context of proposed same-sex-marriage legislation, but it is relevant in this debate.

“Many politicians appreciate the freedom for debate and personal reflection that comes with conscience votes, but this is exactly why they are so dangerous. For conscience votes have the potential to undermine one of the defining principles of secular liberal democracy: the separation of religion and politics….

…We know from empirical research that politicians will tend to hold a mix of these views [on how best to represent their constituents and to serve the public interest], but the point to underline is that all these visions of politics require the politician to fulfil their public office rather than pursue private interests. This includes personal moral and religious interests. We are perfectly comfortable calling politicians corrupt when they steal from the public purse, but we are inconsistent when we do not decry injecting personal religious belief into legislation that will govern the lives of all Australians, regardless of faith.

…. [Conscience] tells us only to look inside ourselves but not what we’ll find there, which could be all sorts of things: university-student ideologies, religious convictions, moral visions. It is the role of political parties and the ritual of parliamentary process to discipline these private enthusiasms by subjecting them to the duties invested in the public office of a politician.”

Ask your actual or potential public representatives this question: “Do you believe that Ireland should be a secular democracy and that we should separate religion and politics?”  If they say no, well at least you know where they stand, and you should commend their honesty.  If they say yes, then tell them that you expect them to act accordingly when performing their duties as a legislator, and not to vote according to their “conscience” where that conscience is informed by religious views that are not universally accepted.

As Bertrand Russell said, “…the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”

 

Why is Fine Gael still cosying up to DO’B?

This from the front page of today’s Irish Times: Ex-Esat chief refuses to take part in forum with O’Brien

Former chief executive of Esat Barry Maloney has written to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste saying he is no longer willing to take part in the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin this weekend because his former business associate Denis O’Brien is attending …..  in letters sent to Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, Mr Maloney said he would not attend this event, given that Mr O’Brien would be a participant, despite the severe criticisms made of him by the Moriarty tribunal in its final report …… a senior Government source expressed confidence in Mr O’Brien, who was involved in many important Irish businesses and charities and had an important contribution to make to the forum.

As I wrote in June, when he was invited to meet the Queen of England:  “Mr O’Brien has denied any wrongdoing, and the issues dealt with by Moriarty may be tested in some form in a court of law.  But in the meantime, surely we are right to expect some circumspection from our political establishment in dealings with Mr O’Brien, and that they should keep him at arm’s length on our behalf.”

Is there nobody in Fine Gael who has the integrity and backbone to stand up and be counted on this?

Patrick Kennedy, the chief executive of bookmaker Paddy Power, has been invited to address the upcoming Fine Gael think-in to be held in Galway.  Mr Kennedy is a very fine fellow and a first-rate businessman, but the invitation to him should be politely withdrawn.

Firstly, a new betting tax regime is to be the subject of legislation in the near future. Kennedy has been vocal (in letters to the Irish Times and elsewhere) in setting out his views of how best this should work.  Betting tax has been reduced over the years from 10 per cent in stages down to 1 per cent, mainly on the initiative of former finance minister Charles McCreevy.  The government is reviewing a possible increase, and the extension of betting tax to online betting.  This is still all up for grabs, so it seems wrong that a major industry player should be given a platform at a sensitive time.  A hostage to fortune is being given, and FG may regret the perceived “contamination” if the legislation is judged to be soft on the betting industry.

Secondly, without being unduly po-faced or prim about it, gambling is still a controversial business, and causes a lot of hardship and unhappiness in many homes around the country.  I am not in favour of a general prohibition on gambling (I enjoy a flutter myself), although I do not believe that casinos should be legalised as they attract criminals and other undesirables like bees to honey.

Thirdly,  betting and gambling do not add value to society in an economic sense in the way agriculture, manufacturing or certain service industries do.  It is a zero-sum game.  The lure of riches through gambling is as illusory as the delusion we suffered during the boom that we could become rich by selling houses to each other; both are economically worthless.

There are many other chief executives that could have been invited to speak to FG members next month, so it seems a pity that the person chosen represents an industry which, while at best providing harmless amusement, is usually never far from controversy and which should , with legislation imminent,  be treated as a bit of a hot potato at this time.

The discretionary powers of the President of Ireland are said to be very limited.  In fact, our President does have important powers, and our lack of appreciation of this is attributable to the fact that (thankfully) we have enjoyed relative political, economic and social stability since the Constitution was enacted.  Accordingly, the constitutional “safeguards” of which the President is guardian have only rarely been used, if at all.

These safeguards  include:   referring a bill to the Supreme Court under Article 26 to test its constitutionality; convening a meeting of either or both of the Houses of the Oireachtas (after consultation with the Council of State); deciding whether to accede to a request under Article 27 (joint petition by a majority of the members of Seanad and not less than one-third of the members of Dáil requesting the President to decline to sign into law a Bill before a referendum or election is held).

But there is one additional power which I feel may become relevant at some time in the near future.  I refer to the right of the President (under Article 13.2.2) to refuse to dissolve the Dáil when requested to do so by the Taoiseach of the day.  This request would arise where that Taoiseach has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann, usually evidenced by the loss of a vote of confidence.  The President can refuse the request if she believes it to be in the interests of the State that the Taoiseach instead goes back to the Dáil and attempts to form a different government.

In the economically and politically stressful months that lie ahead, it may well become appropriate for the next President to exercise her  (or his) discretion in this manner.  I can readily foresee a breakdown in relations between the Fine Gael and Labour partners in the current coalition government.  In a situation where the next budget is set to make cuts of, and/or increase taxes by, a total of €3.6 billion or more, there is plenty of scope for the two parties to fall out.  In particular, it is yet to be seen whether Labour have the stomach for the sort of cuts that are necessary for our economic recovery.  The signs are not good.

So how about this for a scenario:  Enda Kenny’s government falls apart after Labour withdraw their support for certain cutbacks; Enda goes to the Park to look for a dissolution and a general election; President McAleese (or her successor) says “Hang on a minute, we don’t need an election, and in fact it would be bad for the country to hold an election given the prevailing economic crisis.  There are 19 Fianna Fáil TDs on the opposition benches and you should go and talk to them.  With FG and FF combined, there is a comfortable majority, and FF under Micháel Martin can surely be persuaded to do the right thing by the country and allow the economy to be sorted out, however difficult the short-term pain might be. So, on your bike, Enda”

And with that, civil war politics might just come to an end.

A letter in the Irish Times on 21st April expressed a feeling that has been growing on me.

Madam, – With all the bad economic news hitting us day in day out, my belief is that until the Government starts to make some hard decisions we will continue the slide into economic chaos. I haven’t seen one hard decision made as yet. Get a move on. – Yours, etc,  ENDA TREACY, Killalane, Skerries, Co Dublin

We are almost half way through the famous 100 days that Fine Gael promised would see a blizzard of activity as programs are implemented.  There has been a fair bit of shape-throwing and lots of talking the talk.  Now is the time to walk the walk. 

FG can’t let Labour, who hold less than 33% of the seats in the coalition government, block tough but sensible policies.

What on earth is causing Fine Gael to hold back on calling for Michael Lowry to resign, or at least condemning him unreservedly?  Or should that be who is causing Fine Gael to hold back on calling for Michael Lowry to resign?  Is it you, Phil?

A letter in today’s Irish Times sums it up nicely:

Madam, – Mr Justice Moriarty described the actions of Deputy Michael Lowry as a “cynical and venal abuse of office”.   All the major parties in the Oireachtas voted for the establishment of the tribunal and now that it has reported, it behoves the Government to take swift action and censure Deputy Lowry in the strongest terms possible. Failure to do so would be political cowardice of the worst kind. – Yours, etc,   NIALL GUBBINS,  Carrigwell,  Carraig na bhFear,  Co Cork.

What possible gain can there be in any hesitation on Fine Gael’s part in this matter?  Lowry has always been more Fianna Fáil than Fine Gael in spirit, and his recent “deal with the devil” during the Cowen regime only confirms that.  I remember hearing about a Lowry-organised fundraiser in the 1990s in the Burlington at which a number of builders and developers of a definite Fianna Fáil bent were seen strutting their stuff.  There was always a whiff of sulphur around Lowry. 

Enda, this will haunt you for years if you get this wrong.  Don’t wait for Leo or Lucinda to push you stumbling in the right direction.  Show some leadership!