Saturday, February 27, 2010

Legal and illegal highs

Over the last few weeks the issue of "Head Shops" has come into the public discourse. Led on by the rabble-rouser extraordinaire Joe Duffy, the hoi-poloi are up in arms about shops selling substances to the young people that they shouldn't really be consuming. The mob is so inflamed (sorry, couldn't resist) by the issue that two of the shops in Dublin have gone up in smoke. Of course this media frenzy doesn't really address this problems in this country of substance addiction and abuse.

Starting with the obvious, substances such as heroin, cocaine and crystal meth are highly addictive and highly damaging and possession is rightly a criminal offence. Criminal gangs in this country bankroll their activities through trade of class A narcotics and the international production network keeps tens of thousands of the worlds poorest in Colombia, Afghanistan and others in effective slavery. I can't really think of any valid argument that could be made to legalize their use as the downsides of increased usage would vastly outweigh any proposed benefits in regulation and taxation.

The problems occur with the more "social" drugs such as marijuana and mushrooms. All sorts of studies have been produced indicating these drugs are either harmless, are just as damaging as crack and all points in between. But the reality is that these products are being consumed and labeling thousands of teens and twenty-somethings as criminals isn't really helping anyone. The argument of gateway drugs leading to hardcore use doesn't strike me as much as the fact that as long as these drugs are illegal, you are introducing young people to a criminal element that they would be best avoiding.

The legal highs, or maybe better called non-illegal highs, from head shops are a small step in the right direction away from criminality. The big problem is that the substances are relatively untested and although a lot are clearly marked not for human consumption, everyone knows that humans are the target market. Moving to a model of controlled but legal access to recreational drugs seems to me to be the most sensible way forward. We remove a large segment of the market from criminal hands and can then regulate to ensure safe products and raise duty and tax on them.

To leave things as they are is disgraceful. We allow people to consume infinite amounts of alcohol and consider it our national pride and joy. Across the country thousands of people are unable to get though the day without a few Anadin Extra or nod off at night without sleeping tablets and yet a few puffs of a joint and you can face fines or even a stretch in Mountjoy. The drugs policy in this country needs a review and not a review carried out by the people who phone in to radio talk shows.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The art of the Gerrymander

Gerrymandering is not an Irish invention. In fact the term comes from the US where a Governor Gerry of Massachusetts redistricted the state in 1812 to include an extremely long and narrow constituency shaped somewhat like a salamander. The merger of the governor's name and the animal shape gave us the word we now all know and love.

With single member constituencies in a two party system (UK or US) the normal form of gerrymandering is to redraw the borders so that each incumbent is a relatively safe seat. In a region with 50/50 support for each side and two seats to fill, it is relatively easy to redraw borders so that each of the parties win their seat with a 55/45 or stronger margin. The Redistricting Game is an excellent website that explains with many examples the entire process. There are many interactive demos and games that allow you to redraw the borders to suit any political end.

Despite not inventing the term, Ireland has not been a late arrival at the gerrymander. Until the introduction of the independent Constituency Commission about 20 years ago, the lines on the map were completely under the control of the Minister for the Environment. DeValera carved up the country with plenty of three seat constituencies to fend of the advances of Clann na Poblachta after the Emergency.

In the 1970's Labour's Jim Tully tried to retain power for the FG/Lab coalition by creating plenty of three seat constituencies with the view that each of FF, FG and Lab would win a seat each. The plan disastrously backfired with FF winning two out of three in many of the constituencies in the 1977 election leading to the giveaway budgets of the Lynch government. The failure has lead to the term Tullymander where the redrawing of boundaries spectacularly fail to achieve the desired result.

In the PR-STV system the gerrymander tends to be based on the number of seats for a given district rather than making non-compact constituencies. The smaller the number the easier it is for the bigger party or name in an area to win. Larger areas, while somewhat favouring the smaller parties are also more representative of the entire area. A candidate that consistently polls 12% across an area will get elected in a 6 seater but will have no hope if the area is divided into two 3 seaters.

Taking a more simple example, imagine an area with two seats, split into two areas A and B. FF polls well in area A but very poorly in B, FG the other way round and Labour consistently across both districts. Assume the 2nd preferences for each ballot are evenly split between the other two candidates.

Area A
Area B
45% 20% 35% 20% 45% 35%
In this case both FF and FG would be best served by having two separate single seat constituencies as the transfers would elect one representative from each party. In a single two seat constituency, Labour would be elected on the first count with FF and FG slugging it out for random votes in the Labour surplus.

The power to set terms of reference for the Constituency Commission can still have a great influence on the outcome of any boundary review. In the interests of electing the candidates most representative of the views of the electorate it is vital that small, gerrymandered constituencies are removed and large multi-seat constituencies are created.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Minister on the move?

In the last week or so I have heard talk of Minister Mary Hanafin relocating her electoral base from Dún Laoghaire into Dublin South. At first I was extremely skeptical as she has steadily built her vote over the last three elections from just over 9% in 1997 to in excess of 20% in 2007. However, on further reflection it is not as far fetched as one might imagine.

The constituency boundaries were redrawn after the 2007 general election and Dún Laoghaire was reduced from 5 seats to 4 seats and about 11000 residents were moved into neighbouring Dublin South. The moved areas were mainly in Foxrock, Cabinteely and Leopardstown so the new boundary between the two constituencies is now the N11 Stillorgan Dual Carriageway.

Firstly let us consider the state of play in Dún Laoghaire. In 2007, both Fianna Fáil candidates headed the poll with over two quotas between them. After that, Eamon Gilmore of Labour was elected. Fine Gael's three candidate strategy failed miserably as with almost 1.5 quotas they should have been able to get two elected had only two candidates been run. The final seat was picked up by Ciaran Cuffe of the Green Party leaving Richard Boyd Barrett as the loser. If at the time the constituency had been a 4 seater, the most likely result would have been that 2FF, 1FG, 1Lab if the votes had been cast in the same proportions.

The 2009 local elections show a remarkable change in fortunes. Taking the results for the three main wards that make up the Dún Laoghaire Dáil constituency (Ballybrack, Dún Laoghaire and Blackrock - a small part of Stillorgan is also in DL) FG won 35% of the vote, Labour almost 24%, PBP 14% with FF back in 4th place on just shy of 13%. A repeat of these would result in 2FG, 1Lab and 1PBP being returned in the 4 seat Dáil constituency. Going from 2 TDs to none might seem extreme but remember that in 2002 no FG deputies were returned here, whereas only 10 years previously three were elected. A more realistic result might be 1FF, 1FG, 1Lab, 1PBP. But whatever happens there is no chance of both FF deputies being re-elected.

Looking at Dublin South, in 2007 FF won two seats through Seamus Brennan and Tom Kitt, with FG taking another two and the Greens wining the last seat with Eamon Ryan. Since then of course Brennan has passed away, Kitt announced his intention to retire at the next election, George Lee won the by-election with over 50% of the first preferences and then resigned. The bottom line is that going into the next election, FF will not have any sitting deputies looking for re-election. Of course Senator Maria Corrigan will look for a nomination, but her track record is poor having failed to be elected in 2 general elections and a Seanad election before being appointed to the Seanad by Bertie Ahern in 2007. Shay Brennan, late of Anglo Irish Bank, will also seek to run, but his outing in the by-election was less than impressive, failing to achieve even half the party's vote from the general election 2 years previous.

The local elections and the by-election both point to this constituency returning 1FF, 2FG, 1Lab and a big fight between FF, FG and Green for the final seat. So the solution to FF's problem seems pretty clear. They should move one of the two TDs from DL to DS. With only one candidate in DL they should be safe in winning one. To be in with a shout of the second in DS they need a heavy hitter and who better than the current minister, Mary Hanafin, to be the main vote getter on a two candidate ticket, or if they feel suicidal put all three on the ballot and hand the seat to FG or the Greens.

Thanks to Elections Ireland for the raw data and OpenOffice for doing the sums.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Stop! Shuffletime!

Willie O'Dea's resignation last night leaves the post of Minister for Defence currently vacant. As an interim measure Brian Cowen has claimed control of the department, but it would be very unlikely that he will hold on to the post for any length of time. He does have some breathing time to decide what to do with the post - he could just promote someone from the back benches or take advantage of this opportunity to carry out a reshuffle.

If Cowen wants to just promote from within the obvious choice is moving Pat Carey from Chief Whip. Alternatively he might take a back bencher from a constituency where FF are looking shakey for holding on to seats at the next election. There may also be a requirement to appoint someone from the mid-west region for geographical reasons so you could be looking at Niall Collins, Máire Hoctor or Timmy Dooley. It would probably be too much of a kick in the teeth for O'Dea to have his constituency colleague Peter Power elevated to full ministerial office.

The second option is the big reshuffle. Mary Coughlan's almost daily gaffes and failures make it an imperative that she be moved from Enterprise. The only problem is where to put her if she is still to remain as Tánaiste. I shudder at the thought of her being in Foreign Affairs, and big spending departments like Education, Health and Social Welfare should be off limits too. Perhaps a move to Transport or back to Agriculture are plausible. Other candidates for change include Dermot Ahern, Batt O'Keefe, Mary Harney, Noel Dempsey, Martin Cullen and Mary Hanafin. Each of these have blotted their copybook in some form over the last while but it is impossible to see a Stalinesque purging of the old guard as it would precipitate a leadership challenge by one of the demoted within weeks and would collapse the government.

While a major re-jig would be great, I think the single promotion is the most likely outcome with perhaps a minor change to move Coughlan to somewhere harmless that might involve Smith going to Social Welfare and Hanafin moving to Enterprise. Moving the deckchairs won't stop the boat from sinking but it might give it a bit more stability to keep afloat a while longer.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dublin Speed Up?

Following on from a recent post on the new speed limit in the city centre, the Traffic Committee this evening have voted to modify the area affected by the new limit. The 50k limit will be restored to Winetavern St, Kildare St and the quays except between Capel St and O'Connell St. This proposal will be taken to the full council at the March meeting. If accepted there, it will probably be about 6 months before the new bylaw will come into effect.

I've almost come around to the view that this compromise is acceptable. The alternative position is the FG plan to return the 30k zone to what was in place in January with all the main routes in the city centre going back to 50k. While part of me feels that after a few months in operation the 30k zone would just become accepted as the norm, Falstaff did nail it with his "the better part of valour is discretion". Retaining most of the improvements at the cost of a couple of hundred metres of roadway is better than junking all of it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Democratic Deficit

On The Week in Politics last night, Minister Mary Hanifan stated that the byelection for Donegal South West would not be held until "the back end of the year". By this I am assuming she means sometime in October. She then proceeded to justify this further delay on the basis of a possible Mayoral election in Dublin, a possible constitutional amendment on Children's Rights and the need for another byelection in Dublin South.

It has been 8 months already since Pat Gallagher was elected as an MEP and had to vacate his seat in DSW. This is a constituency which with an electorate of 60,829 at the last election and according to the 2007 report of the Constituency Commission had a population of 73,390. With 3 TDs this is right in the middle of the constitutional requirement to have 1 TD for between 20,000 and 30,000 people. However with currently only 2 TDs, Mary Coughlan and Dinny McGinley, the area currently has a TD for every 36,695 inhabitants which is way outside the allowed tolerances. It is a disgrace that the government are allowed to sit on the writ to avoid the embarrassment of FF losing the seat when it is the Táiniste's constituency.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I would propose a change to article 16.7.1 that would put a time limit on filling casual vacancies in the Dáil of three months. This would avoid the current situation where a government can indefinitely postpone a byelection just because it doesn't suit the numbers in the Dáil.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Another one bites the dust

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That could be the summary of Deirdre DeBurca's political career which appears to have come to an end this morning. DeBurca failed to be elected to the Dail in both the 2002 and 2007 elections in Wicklow, each time being the 2nd last candidate to be eliminated. She was then appointed to the Seanad by Bertie Ahern as part of the deal with the Green party. In the European Elections in June she faced the embarrassing situation of not reaching a quarter of a quota to be able to claim expenses back, while at the same time her arch nemesis Patricia McKenna did. Finally, she picked the wrong week to quit with George Lee having already used up all the column inches on the failure of the political system.

Her resignation letter makes for interesting reading. She says "I can no longer support the Green Party in government, as I believe that we have gradually abandoned our political values and our integrity and in many respects have become no more than an extension of the Fianna Fail party." That is a serious kick in the teeth to John Gormley and the rest of the Green parliamentary party. She follows up with "I have lost confidence in you as Party Leader" which is even more damning.

She continues by outlining the difficulties the Greens have in dealing with Fianna Fáil and FF's unwillingness to engage on issues agreed in both Programmes for Government. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following politics over the last few years. It was much easier for the PDs to call the shots because their policies were more closely aligned with FF's. The Greens on the other hand, having an ideology and ethics, were never going to get along with their senior partner. However, DeBurca leaves the knockout punch until the end where she says that things "reached a point where I, and most of the people I know, will be unable to vote Green in the next election." Ouch!

What will be interesting to watch today, is whether DeBurca comes out on the offensive on talk radio like George Lee did on Monday and then to see if Gormley hides like Enda Kenny did. Due to the small number of Green TDs and Senators there aren't many others who can go out and bat for Gormley. Dan Boyle and Eamonn Ryan will do their bit but I would strongly advise against putting Mary White or Paul Gogarty on the national airwaves.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Where do we go from here?

As the world an its mother knows by this stage, George Lee has packed in the job of TD for Dublin South and left FG. There have been reasons given, accusations made, hours of talk radio and miles of column inches covering the story since it broke just before lunchtime yesterday. I'm not going to add anything here on the specifics of George Lee since I don't really have anything insightful to add.

On the other hand, I can totally speculate on the political fallout from his departure. It leaves Frank Flannery and the FG backroom boys with a lot of egg on their face. After all the hype about George's candidacy and subsequent election, they have badly let down the party. The handlers should have known that something wasn't right and tried to sort it out.

So the first question is, will there be a push against Enda Kenny? From the wagon circling that has been going on in FG in the last 24 hours that seems unlikely. Richard Bruton is the obvious candidate for the top job, but that leaves them without a strong voice on Finance - I just couldn't see Kieran O'Donnell or Leo Varadkar going toe to toe with Lenihan and Burton. Beyond that you're looking at either Simon Coveney or Brian Hayes but again it is hard to see either of them leading the heave to oust Kenny.

So assuming Kenny is safe, there will still be some flak and fallout from George's departure in FG. Would it be in Cowen's interest, with his recent bump in the polls to dash up to the Áras and cut his losses. After January's tax receipts, the Boston Scientific and Halifax job cuts announced recently and the impending report from the Tribunal, things are only going to start looking down again from the FF side of the house. We could be looking at an election on 5th or 12th March (or the days before if they want to exclude students from the electorate again). According to my back of the envelope calculation a snap general election would return about the following spread of TDs
  • FF - 57
  • FG - 68
  • Lab - 29
  • SF - 4
  • Green - 1
  • Other - 7
which wouldn't be too disastrous from an FF point of view. Labour seats won't break 30 due to lack of local organizations in some parts. This will give a comfortable majority to FG/Lab but will keep the relationship honest as Labour could always threaten to invite FF back into power at any stage. An election in 2012 would give a much different result with Lab and FG both increasing further and FF falling. The post election horse trading then is going to be very interesting.

However, I don't think that Cowen will bail in which case we're looking at two byelections, Donegal South West and Dublin South. Both of which will probably be held in late May or early June and neither will be won by the Government side of the house. I'll write about my predictions for these byelections in the near future.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A woman's place

I swear this will be the last post to come from last week's Leviathan. Towards the end of the evening, Article 41 came in for a bit of flak. This is the infamous bit that talks about the woman's place in the home.

41.2.1 In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
41.2.2 The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home

Unfortunately, the position from the panel was to make this clause gender neutral rather than dispense with it entirely. Were we to do so, we would be constitutionally protecting the right to rely on social welfare and never leave the house for all citizens. The system would last about one week in those circumstances.

In a way it would be a shame to see 41.2 be dumped from the Constitution. For the time in which it was written it was a very progressive sub-clause. By recognizing that there was value, both socially and economically, to the work that women were doing in the home, the feminist movement in Ireland took a big step forward. However, now it is completely out of date and should be junked. After all, the individualisation of tax credits by McCreevy a few years back should have been challenged on the basis of this clause and yet wasn't. So if we're actually ignoring sections of the Constitution then why have them at all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Kildare Street Confidential

Last night at Leviathan one of the contributors (Gerard Hogan I think) mentioned that cabinet confidentiality had a couple of exceptions written into the Constitution. 28.4.3 is the relevant article and reads as follows

The confidentiality of discussions at meetings of the Government shall be respected in all circumstances save only where the High Court determines that disclosure should be made in respect of a particular matter
  • in the interests of the administration of justice by a Court, or
  • by virtue of an overriding public interest, pursuant to an application in that behalf by a tribunal appointed by the Government or a Minister of the Government on the authority of the Houses of the Oireachtas to inquire into a matter stated by them to be of public importance.

This clause was introduced by the 17th amendment that was approved in November 1997 following a ruling by the Supreme Court that stated that the confidentiality of cabinet meetings was inviolate. The new clause allows a tribunal of enquiry to apply to the High Court for an order to breach the confidentiality in cases of overriding public interest.

It was thrown out last night that this might be a way to force the banking enquiry to be held in public. However, from my non legal reading of the above clause, this is not the case. An Oireachtas enquiry is not a tribunal, therefore the committee of enquiry cannot make such an application. This leaves it up to the Minister in charge of the enquiry who I assume will be Brian Lenihan in his role as Minister for Finance. But it seems highly unlikely that he will want the omerta broken since he and his colleagues are the ones who were making the decisions.

Even if such an application were granted by the High Court, I wonder what sort of record is kept of cabinet meetings. Are they recorded in audio or video? Is there a stenographer in the corner typing away furiously? Is it just notes that are scribbled by Ministers? Do assistants and heads of department attend cabinet to help their Minister, or are they just summoned when required? Would breaching the confidentiality require some form of mature recollection by the cabinet members?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Electoral Reform

A while back I posted some thoughts on our voting system and suggested a few changes that I would make to it. After last night's Oireachtas Committee meeting in TCD it seems like a good time to return to it. At the event, students gave a brief oral summary of a written submission they had made to the committee. Some of the presentations focused on the mechanics of elections such as using the Gregory method for transfer of surpluses or order of candidate names on ballot papers. Others focused on participation through extending voting to ex-pats, addressing the gender imbalance in politics and reducing the voting age to 16. Each of the presentations was the responded to by a member of the Oireachtas committee.

There followed a debate chaired by John Bowman with Noel Dempsey, Ivana Bacik, Justice Frank Clarke and Prof Ken Benoit joining Sean Ardagh and Jim O'Keefe on the panel. There were also contributions from the floor by Joanna Tuffy, Gemma Hussey, Prof David Farrell and many members of the public. A lot of the discussion centred around women's participation in politics and whether there should be gender quotas built into the system. Other topics covered included the method for reform and whether any modifications to the system by elected TDs and Senators could accepted by the public as honest efforts at improvements rather than a cynical exercise in protecting themselves.

Seeing as this was a meeting of the Committee on the Constitution focusing on the electoral system for members to Dáil Éireann, a lot of the issues raised were actually outside the scope. Most items such as gender quotas, ballot paper order and the franchise can all be changed using legislation without recourse to changing the constitution. So what items would I like to see modified in Article 16?
  • 16.1.1 - Why do you need to be 21 to be a member of the Dáil?
  • 16.1.2 - Reduce the voting age to 16. I have rolled back from my more extreme point of 15 (12 for locals)
  • 16.1.5/6 - Introduce a list system to avoid elections being popularity contests. This system should retain multi-seat constituencies and PR-STV for about 100 members and then elect about 60 from the list.
  • Add a subsection to 16.1.1 introducing time limits for membership of the Dáil, maybe 3 sessions or 12 years, which ever is longer
  • 16.1.7 - Add a time limit for seats being kept vacant. 3 months should be sufficient.

Of course, these changes should only be part of a wider change in the system of politics in the country. We need a stronger separation of legislative and executive. We need more powers and responsibilities devolved to local government. We need to take a long, hard look at the role and composition of the Seanad. We need to have better engagement between politics and the public on matters of policy. We need the system to encourage participation from all walks of life. Will any of this be delivered in the near future? I doubt it but we can all keep chipping away.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Constitution Week?

This evening the Exam Hall in TCD hosts a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution followed by a Q&A session chaired by John Bowman. Seems like it is the place to be as almost all of the 330 available tickets have been snapped up. The official business will consist of formal submissions by various politics students to the Committee on the topic of electoral reform. It will be interesting to see if they start advocating assorted list systems or just tinkering with the existing multi-seat setup.

The Q&A session is where the real sparks will fly (hopefully!) as the general public will be allowed contribute to the debate. I'm expecting all sorts of weird and wacky proposals and comments from the usual lunatic fringe. The reform seminar that was held last June had an interesting set of contributors from academia, the media, politics and the hoi-poloi. If the quality of discussion is anywhere close to that, then we should be in for a treat.

Then on Thursday, Leviathan starts up again with a show on re-writing the Constituion. While this event may be slightly lower brow than tonight's, again it should be an entertaining and informative evening. I guess most of the attendees at this will also have been at the TCD event so hopefully the two events won't end up covering the same ground.