Friday, October 23, 2009

RedC Poll this weekend

The next SBP RedC poll is due out on Sunday. Last time out the state of the parties was (if I remember correctly)
  • FG - 35%
  • FF - 24%
  • Lab - 20%
  • SF - 8%
  • G - 4%
  • Other - 11%
So what has happened in the meantime that might change people's political viewpoint?

Firstly, Lisbon was passed. The positive publicity from that should have helped end the rot in FF. But then the John O'Donoghue incident came to the fore and apart from in Kerry that can't have helped FF at all. Labour came out all guns blazing on that but then didn't deliver the killing blow by letting JO'D have his moment in the sun rather than forcing the motion of no confidence.

The Green Party love in a few weeks ago will have brought them back into focus. However, in the current political and economic climate keeping your head below the parapet is probably a safer course of action.

Enda Kenny's outburst on the Seanad last weekend will certainly have influenced opinion. People are looking for any easy way to make cuts and culling 60 overpaid, underworked politicians would be a popular choice. What will be interesting to see is whether this stunt has attracted voters due to the policy or driven them away due to the solo run nature of the announcement.

All the while the NAMA saga rumbles on as do the rumours about what cuts will be made in the budget in about 6 weeks time. Throw into the mix the drink driving ruckus and all in all it has been an interesting month in politics. So here are my predictions for Sunday's poll
  • FG - 34% (-1%)
  • FF - 20% (-4%)
  • Lab - 21% (+1%)
  • SF - 9% (+1%)
  • G - 6% (+2%)
  • Other - 12% (+1%)
No major changes - only FF to move more than the margin of error. I reckon the inertia of the Irish electorate is greater than people think.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Drink driving kills governments?

Is that the sound of the camel's back breaking? Can the straw of drink driving limits really signal an end to this government's reign? Seems like there was a fairly lively meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party last night discussing Minister Dempsey's proposal to reduce the blood-alcohol limit to 50mg (and 20mg for newly qualified and professional drivers). According to the Irish Times, only Rory O'Hanlon and Michael Kennedy were in favour of the proposals with several rural TDs being extremely vocal in opposition to the measure.

What strikes me as strange is that elected representatives could object to bringing Ireland's drink driving laws more in line with the rest of Europe. Only the UK and Malta match our current level of 80mg. Most others are at 50mg with some at 20mg and a few with zero alcohol permissible. The only possible justification for opposing the reduction is the libertarian point of view that all such laws are unjust interference by the state in a person's right to do what they want. But in this case even that is dubious as driving while under the influence strongly impacts on those around you - pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists.

While I can't wait to see the end of Biffo's rule, it would actually disgust me that after signing up for NAMA and imposing harsh cuts on the poorest sections of society, that the government would fall because some TDs still think it should be ok to have a few jars and then drive home from the pub. It could only happen in Ireland - but it is unlikely to lead to an election.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Enda versus the Seanad

So Enda Kenny has put the cat amongst the pigeons with his speech last Saturday night where he proposed the abolition of Seanad Éireann and a reduction in the number of TDs elected to the Dáil. This seems to have come as quite a shock to even his on parliamentary party as FG representatives clogged up the airwaves over the last few days with protests.

The Seanad is made up of 60 members elected or appointed in the following manner
  • 11 appointed directly by the Taoiseach
  • 6 elected by university graduates (3 TCD, 3 NUI)
  • 43 from vocational panels as follows
    • 7 from administrative
    • 11 from agricultural
    • 5 from education and culture
    • 9 from industrial and commerce
    • 11 from labour
In theory this is meant to allow people from each of the respective groups in society influence policy through ammending legislation in the upper chamber. In practice, the Seanad has become a resting home for those who loose their seats in the Dáil, potential Dáil candidates of the future who could do with some experience or (worst of all) people to whom the Taoiseach of the day feels a certain obligation (eg Eoghan Harris).

The main problem with Enda Kenny's plan is that he needs to pass a referendum to abolish the Seanad. Articles 18 and 19 outline the requirements and role of the Seanad and both articles would have to be removed. After a succesful referendum, legislation would have to be passed to repeal the enabling legislation. Realistically the Seanad would cease to exist when the general election after the next one is called - sometime between 2015 and 2017 most likely.

The funniest part of this whole situation is that the most vocal opponents of this proposal are the very same FG senators who pretty much to a man will be elected to the Dail next time out. Perhaps they should just keep their heads down and stop drawing attention to the fact that Enda has gone off on yet another solo run.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Politics of Music

I watched the BBC's How A Choir Works programme last night which finished up with a piece on the power of massed groups singing. It focused on the use of Nkosi Sikeleli Africa by the ANC in its struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa with shots from various rallies in the 70s and 80s. It brought back to my mind standing outside the Mansion House in the mid 80s with my fist in the air, humming along since I didn't know the words. I don't remember what the exact event was - could have been Dunnes Stores workers or maybe a visit by Archbishop Tutu - but that feeling of unity and purpose brought about by thousands singing together has always stuck with me.

Of course music has been used for political purposes by all sides in disputes and debates. In Ireland we've had the Orange Order bands taking on Sean South from Garryowen. Songs like the Red Flag and The Internationale have been mainstays of the socialist movement for over a hundred years. The music of Orff and Wagner was used to great effect by the Nazi regime in building up national pride in Germany in the 1930s. The music of Mendelssohn had been very popular in Germany during the 20s and early 30s but was phased out of general circulation due to his Jewish ancestry.

Most people's exposue to political music is limited to national anthems being performed before or after sporting events. My personal favorites are the more martial tunes such as La Marseillaise,Fratelli d'Italia and our own Amhran na bhFiann. Compare these to the fairly lacklustre Advance Australia Fair or O Canada and it is easy to see why the former are always sung with more gusto at football matches.

Finally, to bring it back to where we started, the current anthem of South Africa is a tribute to a nation rebuilding itself. It uses lyrics from five different languages, tunes from both Nikosi Sikeleli and Die Stem and is unique in national anthems in that it doesn't finish in the same key as it started. Talk about making a bold statement for your country.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The right to vote

In the last few months the Irish public have gone to the polls on two occasions, to vote on three ballots. Each of these ballots has had different franchise rules governing eligibility to vote
  • Local elections - all permanent residents, irrespective of nationallity, are entitled to vote
  • European elections - all permanent residents who are citizens of an EU country are entitled to vote
  • Lisbon Treaty referendum - all permanent residents who are Irish citizens are entitled to vote.
For completeness I should note that there is a fourth category that covers General Elections which is all permanent residents who are Irish or British citizens. Then add in the potential for zero, one or two votes per person in the Seanad election and you end up with quite a mix of possibilities.

In the last few years the electoral register has come in for a lot of stick. Each time a vote has been arranged there are stories of entire families, or indeed streets, having been struck off and people arriving at polling stations to discover they have been disenfranchised. There are also stories of people recieving multiple polling cards and even a case of the family dog ending up on the register.

So what is the easiest way to solve these problems? I would suggest looking to the people who know everything about everyone - the Revenue Commissioners. They have an easy way of knowing who ever person in the country is - the PPS number. Everyone born since 1971 has one, everyone who works has one, everyone on social welfare has one, the first thing emigrants do on arrival is apply for one. The Revenue are also among the first to know when you die and so could easily remove the deceased from the electoral register.

On the issue of elegibility to vote in various ballots I would make the following suggestions
  1. Lower the voting age to 12 for local elections and 15 for all others. Engagement is key to get younger people interesting in politics. By age 18 they're already disillusioned with the system. Also, we are making decisions that will impact heavily on the world in which today's teenagers will live, both environmental and NAMA. They should have a voice.
  2. Extend voting rights in General Elections to be the same as for local elections. The current situation is a taxation without representation for the tens of thousands of emigrants in the country.
  3. Do not extend the voting rights for Presidential elections to the diaspora as is currently being suggested. Representation without taxation is almost as bad as the reverse. If you want a say in how the country is run you should have the decency to live here.
  4. Radically overhaul the method for electing members to the Seanad. This is a complex issue that deserves a post all to itself.
Item 1 would require a referendum to change Article 16.1.2 and it is more than likely that any Seanad reform would also require changes to the constitution. Item 2 on the otherhand can be done by legislation thanks to the amendment in 1984 that updated 16.1.2 to allow UK citizens to vote in Dáil elections.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Programme for Government

After Ciaran Cuffe's bluff being called, the Greens stayed at the table until just before last night's main evening news to agree the new programme for government. With the members' convention only 14 hours away you'd think that speedy dissemination would be key but instead nothing appeared over night. Tweets started appearing from party members who arrived at the RDS and still had no documentation to read. Eventually at 11:10 the document was released online and printed copies distributed to the masses shortly thereafter. Nice to see that an informed decision will be made having such a long period of time to digest the contents of the PfG.

The document itself is full of nice aspirations but short on detail. There are no costings anywhere and no indications of where the money might come from to implement any of the proposals. There are a lot of green agenda items ticked off - GM food, forestry, fur farming and public transport. Indeed it is interesting to note that one of the few firm deadlines in the document is 2016 completion of Metro North and the Dart Interconnector. However it is also worth noting that these have been key parts of PfGs and transport policies since the mid ninties so I won't be holding my breath on that.

The CIO role is a good idea, but some of the ideas are very wierd. For a country with some of the highest electricity costs in Europe, to set ourselves up as a Data Centre hub for cloud computing seems odd at best. Providing broadband to every house by 2012 (subject to EU funding) is also laughable. This should have been done at least 8 years ago if not longer. 100Mb to schools is great until you realise that the IT equipment in most schools is donated 4 year old computers that continually fail. Also the students will just use it to access Bebo and Facebook since there will be no investment in upskilling teachers to deal with the new medium.

Of course, all this is moot. The PfG will be accepted and NAMA will fail to be rejected. The NAMA legislation will then be pushed through and assets transferred from the banks before the budget. When the FF back benchers see the budget cuts that are announced the heave will begin and the government will fall. So all that will be achieved is putting the nation in hock for €50-€60B. Go on the Greens!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize

Wow! That's all I can say. Barack Obama has been announced as the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. For what exactly? Not being George Bush? Not starting random wars around the place? I guess being a shining light of hope and not being an ass is good enough for the Nobel committee these days.

But who else might have been in the running? Here are a few names I can think of or have seen bandied about
  • Mohandas Gandhi - probably the most famous person to still not have won the prize but the rules pretty much ban this
  • Morgan Tsvangirai - Zimbabwe's only hope against Mugabe's corrupt and evil regime
  • Ingrid Betancourt - the French reporter who spent about 5 years in captivity in Colombia
  • Médecins Sans Frontières - the group who have spent almost 40 years treating the sick and injured in war and famine ravaged parts of the world
The biggest joke about this whole announcement is that apparently nominations for the award had to be submitted by 1st February. This means Obama was 10 days in office when he was nominated. Now remind me again of where peace broke out and harmony flourished in late January.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

3rd Level Rankings

Good to see the Irish Universities moving further up the table in today's THES-QS rankings. With Trinity now at 43 and UCD at 89 the state now has two institutions in the top 100. These are followed up with another three colleges in the 200-300 range (UCC, NUIG, DCU). For 5 out of the top 300 to be in a country of this size is a great achievement especially when you consider the per capita drop in funding across the 3rd level sector since the introduction of the free fees scheme.

The metrics used by the THES-QS scheme are interesting
  • Peer review score
  • Employer review score
  • Staff/student ratio
  • Citations ratio
  • International staff
  • International students
The first two are completely subjective. It is impossible to remove bias from the sample set. If you interview an employer in Mexico they're not going to have an opinion on NUIG any more than a researcher in Cork will know much about the Yonsei University in South Korea.

The staff/student ratio is at least objective and highlights the low numbers of lecturers in Irish academia compared to other countries. Of course if the figure was academic pay costs per student it might show a different result but luckily we can park that issue for the moment.

The citations figure is the real damning one. It really shows that by and large the research being carried out in Irish universities is not leading edge. Considering the budgets that HEA and SFI in particular have pumped into 4th level and the efforts of IDA to engage the multinationals in joint R&D we have really dropped the ball on this one.

Luckily, we are a small open economy and so our scores in attracting international staff and students are high. One wonders however, if the student figures are boosted by the free fees scheme attracting undergrads from other EU countries who would end up paying for their education in their home country.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Next Ceann Comhairle

So with reports of John O'Donohue's imminent demise, thoughts turn to who will be his replacement in the chair. Brendan Howlin as Leas Ceann Comhairle is probably near the top of the list but lets examine the options in some detail.

Firstly will an opposition TD actually accept the job? Putting a non government TD in effectively increases the majority in the Dail by two votes. If the Greens are going to walk those two extra votes won't be enough to hold on. However, if they stick it out at the weekend then it makes the FF/G/PD alliance pretty much impervious to falling with 84 seats. The independents won't matter and so it would be in the opposition's best interests to force another government TD to take the job.

The best part of being Ceann Comhairle is that the outgoing CC is automatically returned in a general election. For FF the best bet would be to appoint a TD from a 4 seater where they currently have two seats. Returning 2 from 4 would require about 35% with 1 in 3 needing only 20% and transfers. To my mind that suggests Dublin South West where they are definitely not going to hold two seats but the idea of Conor Lenihan as CC is almost too much to handle. Alternatively we could end up with Cyprian Brady from Dublin Central as CC leaving Mary Fitzpatrick to pick up the seat. But two terms on 939 first preferences would be outrageous.

Alternatively, the CC role may be dangled in front of the Greens to sweeten the deal in the re-negotiation of the Programme for Government. Ciaran Cuffe might be the choice here as Dún Laoighre is shrinking from a 5 to a 4 seater. The ministers would want to hang on to their roles and should be somewhat hopeful of re-election in the next General Election.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lisbon Result

So its official - having voted yes in the referendum, the Dáil can now ratify the Lisbon Treaty. While a Yes vote was expected the 2-1 majority in favour of the treaty was greater that most expected. So what was the difference between the two votes?

In Lisbon 1, turnout was just over 53% whereas on Friday 59% came out to vote. This equates to almost 200,000 additional votes cast. If all these additional voters had turned out for the first ballot and voted yes, the treaty would have been passed by about 100,000 votes. In the 2nd running the yes vote went up over 450,000 and the no vote went down over 250,000 so it wasn't just a case of higher turnout to overturn the result as happened with the Nice Treaty. Instead people changed their minds and moved from the No camp into the Yes camp.

Across the country, the swing to Yes was pretty much even at 20% from working class constituencies which heavily voted No the last time, through to the leafy suburbs of Dublin that voted Yes the last time. The only outliers in the data are the two Donegal constituencies. In both referenda they recorded the lowest turnout and the Yes side only increased by about 13% to leave Donegal as the only county to vote against the amendment at the second time of asking.

The highest swing was in Limerick East (the city area) where almost 25% of the vote switched from No to Yes. As expected the highest Yes percentages were in Dublin South and Dún Laoghaire where both recorded in excess of 4-1 splits.

So who were the winners and losers politically here? Brian Cowen lives to fight another day. A defeat here would have made it impossible to continue as Taoiseach. Micheál Martin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, performed well for FF and the Government in the weeks leading up to the vote. Thankfully, Dick Roche was not allowed on the national airwaves. Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore should be happy with the outcome also but in the back of their minds they must feel that this result will give heart to FF to limp on through NAMA and the budget.

Cóir, Declan Ganley, Sinn Féin and Mary Coughlan must be the big losers in all of this. Ganley came back to save the nation from itself but was unable to follow through. Sinn Féin as the only major party to oppose the Treaty did not make much headway and lost the media battle with Cóir and other fringe groups to be the spokespeople for the No campaign. In Lisbon 1 it was almost impossible to find a programme that didn't have Mary Lou McDonald on the panel but this time out they were much less visible.

Finally, Mary Coughlan's days must be numbered. As Táiniste she should have been able to deliver a Yes vote in her home county. Instead the people of the North West gave a two fingered sign to Dublin, Ireland and the rest Europe. Losing one referendum is misfortunate but losing two is careless. There is now no political reason to keep her in the number two spot. A reshuffule should happen as part of the re-negotiation of the PFG and Martin should be promoted and Sweary Mary sent to the back benches beside Bertie.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Voting Endorphin Rush

This will probably get me labeled a political junkie, but there's nothing quite like voting. As Blur once said, it gives me a sense of enormous well being and a slight buzz that lasts all day. Therefore I'm a great believer in half of the vote early, vote often phrase that apparently comes from a mayor of Chicago about 100 years ago and not Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin as might be thought in this country.

For the last number of votes I have made it to the polling station on the way to work, usually between 730 and 800. This morning I was the third person who voted in the Pastoral Centre in Harold's Cross at about 710. This polling station is small as the electoral area is right up against the edge of the constituency, (Dublin South Central is on the other side of the road), so there are only two ballot boxes. On my arrival, the presiding officer for my desk was actually outside, still setting up a sign and removing some campaign material from near the door. However, since I didn't have my polling card it took his assistant a minute or two to find me and check my drivers license. Then with a flourish of my HB pencil I stuck an X in the Yes box, dropped it in the ballot box and hit the road for work.

This time out, I'm not attending the tally and count as I'd feel a bit bad taking a ticket since I didn't really campaign at all. In fact apart from discussions in work and a bit of keyboard warrioring on Facebook and Twitter I've been pretty much useless this time out. Guess I'm keeping it all in reserve for the General Election in November after the Green's pull the plug on this disgraceful government.