Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bridge to Nowhere

Throughout the world, bridges are some of the most iconic landmarks that man has built. Think of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Venice's Ponte Vecchio and the Pont Neuf in Paris. Add to that our own Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin, the Barrow Rail Bridge and the Boyne Bridge on the M1 and you can see that even in Ireland we have some fantastic constructions. Each of these bridges has a purpose of connecting communities, enabling safer and faster passage or even to make money through tolls.

Unfortunately not all bridges are built with such noble purposes. There is a history of bridges to nowhere - expensive, pork barrel projects that serve no purpose except for politicians to claim that they have delivered infrastructure for their voters, even if the infrastructure is unwanted. The most famous of these edifices was never actually built - the Gravina Island bridge in Alaska. This project was to cost almost $500M and connect an island with 50 inhabitants to the mainland and shot to fame during the last US presidential election when it turned out that Sarah Palin was strongly in favour of the project.

With that in mind, it came as a surprise to me last week on holidays in Donegal to discover the Harry Blaney bridge that joins Fanad to Carrigart across Mulroy Bay. A little research determined that the bridge was opened in 2008 by Brian Cowen at a cost of about €20M, quite reasonable when compared to Gravina Island.

On the south side, the bridge is connected to the Carrigart to Milford road by a new sweeping stretch of tarmac. The road then rises high into the air over Mulroy Bay and lands in Fanad in the middle of nowhere. There is a good stretch of road up the hill from the bridge for perhaps 300m at which point the road turns into a rural backroad, no more than 3m in width all the way to the R246 about 10km away. I had the pleasure of sitting by the bridge on a nice sunny morning for an hour while I read the newspaper. During this time about 30 cars crossed the bridge along with 3 German tourists on bicycles. The only other traffic was 4 lorries carrying materials for the road widening that is currently underway.

Certainly a more picturesque location or bridge you couldn't imagine. At times I felt like I was in a scene from Sim City where someone had just started laying out their city with a crossing point. I'm sure the bridge is of benefit to the community. It brings people in that part of Fanad close to the shops, post office and Garda station in Carrigart and substantially shortens the distance from the beaches in the north and east of the Fanad peninsula to holiday makers based in Downings and Dunfanaghy but you really have to wonder was this just another example of parish pump politics in action or was there a real demand for the link to be built.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reform, What could we do tomorrow?

I'm stealing the title of this post from Johnny Fallon's blog, which everyone should read. In his post today, he put together a list of 17 items that could change in the morning that would improve politics in this country without requiring legislation. I'm going to comment on a few of them and hopefully add some more.

From Johnny's list
  1. Return the Dáil to centre of debate and News.
    The relentless press conferences by government ministers announcing (or re-announcing for the 3rd time) various projects without questioning from opposition spokespersons is bad for politics. Bringing these events back to the Dáil is good for democracy. Sure, have a press conference afterwards, but make the initial announcement in the chamber.
  2. Full review of Dáil Standing Orders
    This is one of my pet projects. Standing Orders currently make a mockery of parliament by restricting the number and type of questions that can be put to the executive. The rules about technical groupings for speaking rights is also a farce that silences legitimately elected TDs from participating fully.
  3. Oireachtas Committees to meet in public
    I was at the meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution that met in Trinity College earlier in the year. Even though it was a somewhat staged event with prepared presentations from students and pro-forma responses from the members it was a step in the right direction. The Committees are now where most of the review of legislation and policy happens and they should be more open to the public.
  4. Monthly Town Hall style meetings for Ministers
    YAWN It would just turn into a stage managed event only watched by political anoraks. We just got rid of Questions and Answers from RTE, don't bring it back in an online version.
  5. Tie voting into the PPS system
    Fully agree as I posted last October.
  6. State of the nation address
    I still shudder when I see re-runs of the "living away beyond our means" speech that Charlie Haughey made. So I don't want to see this. We already have the budget which is a proxy state of the nation address anyway.

Some other changes I would throw out there include
  1. Default to yes in FOI requests
    While FOI has been butchered by legislation there is still a lot of information that should be in the public domain but is hidden away behind layers of bureaucracy. FOI requests are often rejected for spurious reasons or the key information is redacted to protect the innocent. By default any information asked for should be given. In fact it should go one step further and all Govt departmental memos should be published unless containing commercially sensitive, security/defence information or the like.
  2. Full accounting for political accounts
    This ties into Johnny's point on donations, but I would go further and say every politician's political account should be open to full scrutiny. This should also be extended to central parties, constituency organisations and even branches. Most people won't care, but scrutiny by opposing forces will keep each side honest.
  3. Engage with young people
    That almost sounds patronizing, but if you consider the massive influence that the grey vote has compared to the under 25s contrasted to the massive impact that current policies are having on young people while leaving pensioners relatively unscathed, there is a massive disconnect between politics and young people. And by this I don't mean create a Facebook page and post some cool links on Twitter. Find out what they want and come up with better ways for them to contribute to society.

I'm sure there are loads more but that will do for starters. Any other ideas?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reilly ups the ante

In Friday's paper, Mary Minihan reports that Fine Gael are aiming for at least 70 seats in the next general election, with 20 of those in Dublin. With the party already on 51 seats, that means finding an additional 19 seats throughout the county with a doubling of their Dublin representation from the 2007 election. To my mind the first part is plausible but the second is ludicrous.

With a target of only 9 seats outside Dublin, it seems to me that Fine Gael have already capitulated to a Fianna Fáil recovery of sorts in the rest of the country. There are 31 constituencies beyond the Pale most of which have two FF TDs at present. FG should be drawing up a list of 15-20 of these 2nd FFers and targeting them. With Labour's world renowned poor organisation outside of Dublin, FG should be sweeping all before them in its traditional heartland.

In Dublin the position is the opposite. At the moment, Lab is polling way ahead of FG and have the members on the ground to take advantage of the anti-FF swing. In 2007, FG got about 20% of the vote and about 21% of the seats. However, in most constituencies they only ran a single candidate and so in order to win a second seat, additional candidates will need to be added. After the local elections, FG now have a smattering of new faces such as Eoghan Murphy in Dublin South East, but you can be sure that sitting TDs who relied on transfers to get elected in 2007 will be fighting tooth and nail against a strong running mate.

In terms of gains in Dublin, currently FG have no seat in Dublin Central, Dublin Mid West and Dublin North West. Paschal O'Donohue and Frances Fitzgerald should pick up seats in the next election but Bill Tormey will find it hard in Dublin North West. In the locals he polled close to 13% but was outgunned by SF and Lab. It is hard to see both FFs losing their seats so seeing FG gain at the expense of SF or a 2nd Lab seat. Reilly will not bring in a running mate in Dublin North as Lab will retake the seat and Sargent will hold on despite a tough challenge from the Socialists. North Central and North East as two small 3 seaters do not have enough FG votes to win a second. Although Dublin West gains an extra seat it will be taken by Joe Higgins.

On the southside of the city things don't look much better. Had George Lee hung around, Dublin South could have returned three FG seats, but with his departure that now looks unlikely. Dun Laoghaoire going to 4, facing two ministers, another party leader and a strong PBP candidate is not going to work either. South Central will comfortably return Catherine Byrne with the votes from the leafy Terenure end of the constituency but will otherwise be hostile territory with Lab, SF and PBP all looking to mop up the working class vote in Crumlin, Ballyfermot and Drimnagh. It is impossible to see 2 quotas or anything close in South West and as I previously posted I don't see FG winning a 2nd in South East either.

That gives a grand total of 2 gains. Lets be generous and say that they grab another 3 that I have ruled out (say DS, DSE and DNW). That is still only half the target Reilly set which must be seen as either a failure of his deputy leadership or else that an impossible target was set for him by the party strategists. Either way I'd rather not be in his shoes on the day after the count, having failed to deliver the required seats in the capital to allow Enda sweep to power.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fantasy All Ireland Dail

Seeing as the glorious twelfth has just passed, I thought it might be time to have a little cross-border shenanigans. At some point in the future, 10 years or maybe 100 years, the Good Friday agreement will bring about a united Ireland. When that happens we will have an all-island parliament in the Dáil in which parties from North and South will have to come to some sort of arrangement. So I thought I'd have a look at what a combined parliament would look like.

Firstly, the constitution states that there should be a TD for between every 20k and 30k people. With about 4.2M people in the Republic being represented by 166 TDs that gives a rate of just over 25k per TD, right in the middle of the required limits. Given there are about 1.8M people in the 6 counties, on that ratio there would be 72 northern TDs bringing the total Dáil size to 238 and meaning a coalition would need 119 deputies to take power.

Based on the results of the recent general election results in the north, the 72 seats might be distributed something like the following
  • Sinn Fein, 25.5%, 19 seats
  • DUP, 25%, 18 seats
  • SDLP, 16.5%, 12 seats
  • Conservatives/Unionists, 15.2%, 11 seats
  • Alliance, 6.3%, 4 seats
  • Traditional Unionists, 3.9%, 2 seats
  • Others, 7.6%, 6 seats
Of course, in a unified Ireland it would be expected that the SF/SDLP vote would be higher as a majority would have voted for unification already. But lets just stick with these numbers.

The next question is with which southern parties would these groups align themselves? Sinn Fein are the most obvious as they would join their existing 4 deputies. SDLP are members of the PES like Labour and so would most likely join them, but at the same time they have had links with FF in the past and would be heavily courted. We'll place the Others (which might include an extra Green) with the existing independents and leave the Alliance as a stand alone unit for now.

That leaves the 31 seats representing the Unionist parties. All three would be somewhat aligned with FG on the christian democrat front, but are actually more hostile to each other than most of the other parties, therefore it is impossible to see a situation where they all join with one southern grouping. Therefore I'm going to add the Con/U to FG and then merge the Traditionals with the DUP and leave them as another new grouping. I'm also assigning the by-elections as 1FG, 1Lab, 1SF. This would leave the Dáil looking as follows
  • Fianna Fáil - 72
  • Fine Gael - 63
  • Labour - 32
  • Sinn Féin - 24
  • DUP/TradU - 20
  • Green - 6
  • Alliance - 4
  • Others - 17

Now to look at the horse-trading to form a coalition. Lets assume that FF and FG will still avoid each other and that the DUP will not join with SF (even though they work together in Stormont) but that any other combination is fair game. The simplest option for FF is to rope in Lab and SF and run with a 9 person majority. Alternatively swapping SF for DUP still gives a comfortable majority and has the benefit of being inclusive of the unionist community. FG on the other hand need to cobble together a rainbow of some sort. FG/Lab/SF scrapes in at 119 and so would need to rope in the Greens, Alliance or a smattering of Others to provide stable government. No other combinations get close to the magic figure.

It should be noted, of course, that on current opinion polls, the representation in the South would be drastically different to what is currently in place. Perhaps in another post I'll have a look at how a united Dáil in 2012 would look.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Alternative method of running by-elections

It seems that a large part of the problem with by-elections is that by their nature they go against the principle of proportionality that we like in our politics in Ireland. PR-STV is all well and good when there are loads of seats, but with only a single seat like in by-elections or presidential elections it degenerates into the AV system currently being proposed in the UK. Of course, with only one seat, you can't come up with a proportional election short of electing body parts instead of complete humans.

Is there a reason for holding by-elections at all? At general elections we elect TDs to represent our constituencies roughly in line with the wishes of the electorate. Sometimes quirks of PR-STV throw up odd results but by and large at least on of the group of TDs will represent the party preference of most of the votes cast. Therefore it can be argued that any casual vacancy should be filled by co-option to retain the same party representation. This system operates at City/County Council level and for the EU parliament and seems to function fairly well.

The more radical solution is to start from the premise that we elect TDs as a representative set. Therefore if one goes, they should all go and a full election for the constituency should be run again. This would allow for a change in personnel within parties as well as a change of party strength within the constituency reflecting the whims of the voters. Unfortunately this system would just result in even more parish-pump activity from TDs as there would be an increased chance of being booted from office for dealing with national rather than local issues.

Looking at the three outstanding by-elections under the radical solution you could face the following situation
  • Donegal South West - McGinley and Doherty safely elected with Coughlan facing a challenge from a returning Gallagher. Having the Tánaiste losing her seat would be a huge embarrassment for the government.
  • Waterford - Deasy, O'Shea and one FF seat would be returned. The final seat would be a big scrap between the second FG and Halligan (WP/Ind/PBP depending on the day of the week).
  • Dublin South - this could go anywhere. Two FG, 1 Lab and 1 FF seems likely but after that the final seat is wide open. On the previous by-election figures you'd say FG should get a third, recent opinion polls suggest a second Labour but Eamon Ryan could hang on. There is also an outside chance of a second FF depending on candidate selection.

Regardless of the method used, timing of by-elections should be regulated by either legislation or in the constitution. It is now over a year since the European elections and 4-5 months since the resignations of Lee and Cullen. It is a disgrace that the government can hold the people in contempt for this length of time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Whip it!

One of my best memories of watching Beavis and Butthead in the early 90's was when Devo's Whip It came on. The poor lads didn't know what to make of the song or the video and the term bumsnoidial buttsnoid was invented. Anyway the relevance of that useful snippet of nostalgia to this blog is the aftermath of the stag hunting bill last week.

The bill, which to my non-expert eye didn't really do that much, ended up being passed in the Dáil despite defections from various quarters. Mattie McGrath (FF) from South Tipperary voted against the bill in the electronic vote and then abstained from the walkthrough that was called. Tommy Broughan (Lab) from Dublin North-East refused to attend the session for either vote and Arthur Morgan (SF) from Louth managed to get himself suspended from the chamber so as not to have to vote against the bill. Then in the Seanad, Labour Senator Ivana Bacik also abstained from the vote on the bill.

After these events, both McGrath and Broughan lost the whip of their respective parties and Bacik found a strongly worded letter in her mail warning her of the consequences of any further non compliance with PLP wishes. Add to these the existing FF outcasts (Butler and Callely in the Seanad with Devins, Scanlon and McDaid in the Dáil) and potential future rebels (Máire Hoctor and Christy O'Sullivan downstairs and Senators Walsh, Hanafin and Ó Murchú upstairs) and all of a sudden there are quite a number of public reps operating outside the party system.

Having lost the whip, these members have to relocate their office to the independents penthouse floor and must resign any seats on committees that they held on behalf of the party. Most importantly, under the D´il Standing Orders they lose speaking rights in the Dáil as they are not a member of a party or technical group with 7 or more members. The goverment will not share time with its own rebels, but at the same time whipless FF TDs are unlikely to join forces with the "real" independents such as Jackie Healy Rae, Finian McGrath or Maureen O'Sullivan and give them a platform from which to attack their erstwhile colleagues in goverment.

The real problem stems from the strict enforcement of the whip system in the Dáil, due to our preference for a minimal sized coalition and lack of large majorities. In the UK there are three levels of whip along with free votes on certain issues. In the Dáil there is always a two line whip in operation with a three line enforced for votes of confidence, finance bills etc. This leads to the daft situation that occurred with the Stag Hunting bill where at least six FF back benchers spoke against the bill but only McGrath followed through on the threat of not supporting. For a bill of this nature that would not collapse the government, surely those who oppose it, whether for moral or political pressures, should be allowed to go with their conscience.