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.

 

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?

 

 

 

Here’s yet another example of an Irish politician “calling for” something to happen, as if somebody else is actually in charge of running the country.

From yesterday’s Irish Times:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has called for a national conversation on the exposure of young people to pornography.

Mr Kenny said he has serious concerns young people were being tainted and corrupted by an avalanche of pornography.

“It’s always important that we should have a national conversation about what is important for our children – what is, and should be, a priority for our children when they’re growing up, and when they grow up.

Last time I checked, Enda was the Taoiseach. Has he no views on the matter?  If he doesn’t like the way the country deals with pornography, then do something about it. Irish politicians are ridiculously scared of being seen to have an actual policy on something, in case a few votes are lost back in the constituency. Other commentators have picked up on this.

Contrast this waffle with the way things are done in the UK. You may agree or disagree with the policy, but at least the politicians in power have particular views on things, and are not afraid of taking action.

This from July 2015:

Mr Cameron launched an opt-in system for pornography in 2013, meaning users had to tell their internet providers that they wanted access to adult material. The filter also blocks websites advocating self-harm and anorexia.

After concerted pressure from Downing Street, this year, Sky, BT and TalkTalk imposed automatic filters unless customers asked them to be turned off. 

This is but a single example of this infuriating tendency.  Enda should lead from the front, or get off the stage.

 

 

Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter from 55 members of the US Congress asking him to address what they see as the human rights violations of women in El Salvador.

Amnesty International explains the background:

El Salvador banned abortion in all circumstances in 1998….. Women and girls found guilty of having an abortion face a prison sentence of two to eight years. Health care providers who assist them face up to 12 years in prison….. Women who have had miscarriages have been charged with aggravated homicide, a charge which can bring a sentence of up to 50 years in prison. Amnesty International has documented the cases of many women who have been sentenced to decades in prison after having a miscarriage.

According to the BBC:

El Salvador is not the only country in Latin America to have such strict laws, but it is particularly strict in enforcing it. Doctors have to inform the authorities if they think a woman has tried to end her pregnancy. If they fail to report such cases, they, too, could face long sentences in jail. The result is what human rights groups are calling a criminalisation of miscarriages and medical emergencies.

San Salvador’s auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez was quoted as saying: “Every human life is sacred. To get rid of that is committing murder. If there are two lives in danger, you have to save the one that’s most fragile and that’s the child”.

So El Salvador is being entirely logical in how it enshrines Roman Catholic theology (can that be the right word in to describe such a cruel policy?) in its civil law.

If I may repeat myself, even in Ireland we implicitly, and necessarily, recognise that the death of a foetus does not warrant the same legal protection as the death of a child or adult.  For otherwise our law would require that, every time a woman becomes pregnant but fails to deliver a live baby in due course, there would be a full and formal legal Inquest into the “death” of the “person” .   Under Irish law, an Inquest must be held if a coroner has reasonable cause to believe that a death occurred suddenly and/or from unknown causes.  That we don’t subject women to such a ridiculous process every time there is a miscarriage during a pregnancy demonstrates that even in Ireland we are prepared to accept that in practice a foetus does not warrant the same legal due process and protection as a fully formed human being.

I suspect that if we did follow the anti-abortionists’ logic and launch a full Inquest every time a woman suffered a miscarriage, just in case there had been some intent on her part to induce the miscarriage, or negligence in this regard, then we would see an uproar from all sane people, and Amnesty International and US politicians would be on our case with a vengeance.

But requiring an inquest in these circumstances would be the logical (but crazy) outcome of the call for the “unborn” to have the same legal rights as a child or adult. Sometimes those guilty of folly and cruelty need to be shown a reductio as absurdum to help change their mindset.

We are, one might surmise, less savage in our laws (or their implementation) than El Salvador is; but we are undoubtedly less consistent too. If we are to enshrine the doctrine of a particular religion in our laws, then why don’t we go the whole hog, just as Iran or Saudi Arabia do?

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.”

 

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.

I recently met a friend whom I tend to envy, not because he is wealthy (although he is that), or successful with women (he doesn’t seem to be too concerned with such matters) but because his outlook on life seems untrammeled by any caution-giving uncertainties or by any debilitating doubts.  Every time we discuss a topical question, his views are expressed forcefully and in a manner which, even if it sometimes leaves room for further debate, makes it clear that his views will not be varied by such debate, and that for me to argue against him would just be misguided and/or silly.

But my envy is usually short-lived, and fades away in the light of even the most cursory reflection.  In fact, on such occasions I am reminded of the saying (of unknown provenance) that “I wish I was as certain about anything, as he is about everything”.

In reality, I prefer a more nuanced, analytical frame of mind, an attitude nicely expressed in a Frank Conroy essay, “Think About It”:

Indeed, in our intellectual lives, our creative lives, it is perhaps those problems that will never resolve that rightly claim the lion’s share of our energies. The physical body exists in a constant state of tension as it maintains homeostasis, and so too does the active mind embrace the tension of never being certain, never being absolutely sure, never being done, as it engages the world. That is our special fate, our inexpressibly valuable condition.

Even the super-controlling business hero Steve Jobs once admitted:
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Obviously, as Yeats knew, it can be dangerous to lack conviction about one’s beliefs :

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So lack of conviction is to be regretted?   Arguably so, assuming one’s beliefs are of a democratic and peaceful nature.  But Yeats himself was anti-democratic and was even regarded as an admirer of fascism.  So there’s a dilemma here:  for society to progress, or even for it to be managed properly, we need people of conviction, “men of action”.  But such men or women are just as likely to be wrong-headed or evil as they are to be clever and benign.

In a multimedia age, where the soundbite is king, voters can too easily confuse certainty with smartness.  TV current affairs and news programme producers avoid panellists/interviewees who express views with caution, and choose instead those who have strongly held views of a black-and-white nature.  Hedgehogs, not foxes.

I have great admiration for public figures and commentators who are prepared to admit that they are unsure of the answer to any given question.  I think I do, at any rate.