Friday, December 30, 2011

Review of Dail Constituencies (Part 5)

In this final part, (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) we come to the jewel in the crown, the crème de la crème, the pièce de résistance, Dublin. Ok, so it ain't all that, but for the amateur constituency maker it provides the greatest opportunity for creativity while still remaining within the guidelines laid down by the legislation. In keeping with the rest of my carve up, we will be maximizing the number of large constituencies. So lets take a look at how the 44 seats allocated to Dublin can be best divided to create eight 5-seaters and a single 4-seater.

To paraphrase Caesar, Dublinium est omnis divisum in partes duo. The Liffey forms the boundary between the Northside and the Southside and so we will follow suit and maintain this boundary. North of the Liffey there are just under 580,000 residents while just over 690,000 people live South of the river. Dividing the allocated seats proportionately we get 20 TDs for the Northside and 24 TDs for the Southside. This means we will create four 5-seaters on the Northside with four 5-seaters and a single 4-seater on the Southside. The map here shows my proposed boundaries.

North Dublin

Currently there are 6 constituencies with 21 seats in North Dublin. In the infamous Tullymander, the Dublin area was divided into many 3-seaters. Then for the 1981 election the boundaries were redrawn to create 4-seaters in urban areas. However, due to dropping population levels compared to the rest of the country, over the last 30 years each of Dublin North-East, Dublin North-Central and Dublin North-West have been reduced to 3-seaters, losing territory to neighboring constituencies to minimize the population variance. I propose that the current boundaries are not fit for purpose and suggest that it is now time for a major redrawing, ignoring the requirement for continuity as it is the least important requirement in the legislation.

Starting at the top, the major issue in Dublin in the last redraw was the division of Swords between Dublin North and Dublin West. I propose this be reversed and that Swords-Forrest rejoin Dublin North. The addition of Portmarnock, Balgriffin and the Airport will bring Dublin North up to the required level of population for a 5-seater. What remains of the existing Dublin North-East should then be merged with almost all of the existing Dublin North-Central to form another 5-seater which I am going to call Dublin North-East. The only transfer required here is the DED of Drumcondra South A out of the new constituency.

On the 2011 census figures, the existing Dublin Central already has just about sufficient population to warrant remaining a 4-seater in our reduced 160 seat Dáil. However, we are aiming for 5-seaters so we need to transfer in around a total of about 30,000 people which we will take from the existing Dublin North-West constituency along with Drumcondra South A which we have already ditched from the new Dublin North-East. By absorbing most of the Ballygall and Whitehall DEDs along with Ballymun C and Beaumont A we get a total population of just under 147,000 which is fine for a 5-seater.

This leaves the remains of old Dublin North-West (Finglas and Ballymun mainly) and old Dublin West (Blanchardstown and Castleknock). These areas combined have a population of almost 146,000 which again is just right for a 5-seater. I am calling this area Dublin West, but it could just as easily be called Dublin North-West. This completes the division of Dublin north of the Liffey.

South Dublin

Moving to the Southside, we need to create four 5-seaters and a 4-seater from the existing mix of two 5-seaters and four 4-seaters. This represents a loss of two seats and one constituency. There are several ways to carry out this division but I feel that the cleanest is to disband the existing Dublin South-Central constituency and divide its territory into its neighbours, bringing each up to the required population level.

Starting in Dún Laoghaire, we are short about 0.3 TDs worth of population to maintain the constituency as a 4-seater. I propose returning some of the DEDs on the western side of the N11 back from Dublin South that were transferred during the last boundary review, namely Foxrock-Carrickmines, Cabinteely-Loughlinstown and Shankill-Rathmichael. This provides an increase of about 15,000 in population which brings the constituency in line with the requirements for a 5-seater.

Having lost 15,000 to Dún Laoghaire, Dublin South finds itself needing a similar increase in population to keep its 5 seats. This can be achieved by adding Firhouse-Village. This allows us to retain the Dodder as the northern boundary of Dublin South for most of its length. This border also means that for Dublin South-East to move from a 4 to a 5-seater it must expand westwards into the old Dublin South-Central. This requires adding the DEDs of Merchant's Quay and Ushers as well as the areas of Crumlin C, Kimmage C and Terenures A and B. This serves to unite the south city centre into a single constituency, much as Dublin Central serves the entire north city centre, while also retaining some balance between high and lower density areas by uniting Harold's Cross and most of Terenure into a single constituency.

Dublin Mid-West then expands eastwards into Kilmainham, Inchicore and Crumlin as well as taking all of Clondalkin-Monastery. To keep the population within limits we need to transfer the semi-rural DEDs of Newcastle, Rathcoole and Saggart to Dublin South-West. This leaves Dublin Mid-West at 147,000 which is acceptable for a 5-seater. The transferred DEDs along with the remainder of the old Dublin South-Central (mainly Walkinstown and Templeogue) when added to Dublin South-West give us a constituency with just over 139,000 which, although slightly lower than average, is still acceptable as a 5-seater. It should also be noted that some of the DEDs in the new Dublin South-West had population increases of between 22% and 51% since the previous census and so it is expected that the variance will decrease over time.

Dublin Summary

The table shows the population and variance of each of the new Dublin constituencies. As we expect most of the constituencies have a slightly positive variance. This is due to the region being under-represented by 0.4 TDs which was felt a reasonable thing to do to increase slightly the representation in Connacht/Ulster earlier on.

Local Tweaks

One thing that needs to be checked is the precise alignment of the boundaries of constituencies with the boundaries of the DEDs. This is because, in most cases, the DEDs pre-date a lot of development, especially in suburban areas in Dublin. For example, in the map here, we have a close up of the boundaries between my Dublin South-East, Dublin Mid-West and Dublin South-West constituencies. The logical divider should be the Crumlin Road from the Canal to the Children's Hospital and then the Drimnagh Road and Long Mile Road as far as the Naas Road.

However, the marked area to the north of the Long Mile Road is actually part of the Walkinstown A and Clondalkin-Ballymount DEDs which straddle the main road. In this case it would be sensible to split the DEDs and put the parts on the north side of the road into Dublin Mid-West, leaving the parts on the south of the road in Dublin South-West. Due to the land use (mainly commercial and industrial) not much population would change with this modification but it would make the boundary between the Dáil constituencies much clearer.

Similarly the section of Crumlin Road near the canal actually bisects the Crumlin C DED. Again it may make more sense for the constituency boundary to follow Crumlin Road rather than turn left onto Herberton Road. However, this would result in some population shift between Dublin South-East and Dublin Mid-West so care would have to be taken not to put Dublin Mid-West over the 30,000 people per TD limit. This would be possible with access to the Small Areas database which is more fine-grained than the DEDs.

Conclusion

In this series I have shown that the Constituency Commission can tackle the problems associated with 3-seater constituencies without breaking too many of the guidelines set out in their terms of reference. The table shows that I have managed to reduce the number of 3-seaters from 17 down to 2. The quantity of 4-seaters has also been reduced from 15 to 11 while the number of 5-seaters has doubled from 11 to 22. These posts will be amalgamated into somewhat coherent English and submitted to the Commission in the coming days. I hope that they will follow my lead and try to consign the 3-seater to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review of Dail Constituencies (Part 4)

Leinster (excluding Dublin)

Compared to the shenanigans required to get Connacht/Ulster to work, Leinster outside of Dublin turns out to be fairly straightforward. The table here shows the number of TDs per county based on a 160 TD Dáil with a total of 43 to be distributed across the region.

The southern counties arrange themselves neatly into three 5 seaters. Wexford is pretty much spot on for 5 seats, Carlow and Kilkenny combined are slightly over the required population for 5 but not by much, and Wicklow on its own is slightly below, but again not by much. In the current constituencies the north-eastern DEDs in Carlow are transferred across to Wicklow to balance up the populations more exactly. This is easy to do but I believe that the desire to avoid breaches in the county boundaries is stronger than tweaking the population to reduce variances.

Since the foundation of the state the constituency of Laois-Offaly has existed, initially as a 4 seater but for most of its history as a 5 seater. However, due to substantial population growth, the area is now entitled to 5.5 TDs in a 160 seat Dáil and so some territory needs to be shed. In the previous arrangement the most southerly DEDs in Offaly were transferred to Tipperary North. However, I want to keep the provincial borders intact and so propose removing a total of 7 DEDs from Portarlington to Edenderry from Laois-Offaly and adding them to Kildare. With these additions, Kildare's total representation increased to 8 in total. By moving the Robertstown and Downings DEDs from the existing Kildare North into Kildare South and adding the DEDs from Laois-Offaly to Kildare South as well we end up with three well balanced constituencies.
In the last boundary review, two DEDs around Drogheda were added to Louth as it was determined that they had more in common with the town than with the rest of Meath. If these remain in the Louth constituency then no changes need to be made to allow the constituency retain 5 TDs. This population transfer is not sufficient however to create a 5 seater of the remainder of Meath. I propose transferring the western DEDs of the county from Oldcastle, through Athboy and down to beside Kinnegad across to an expanded Longford-Westmeath constituency. This then forms three 5-seaters covering the northern end of the province.

This map shows my division of the non-Dublin section of Leinster, comprising of seven 5-seaters and two 4-seaters. A summary of the new constituencies is contained in the table. As can be seen the maximum variance occurs in Carlow-Kilkenny and Wicklow which as mentioned previously can be remedied if required by transferring DEDs from Carlow to Wicklow.

Munster


Munster lies somewhere between Leinster and Connacht/Ulster in terms of difficulty to arrange into new constituencies for a 160 seat Dáil where the emphasis is on creating larger constituencies. Three counties, namely Clare, Kerry and Waterford are nicely populated to form constituencies in their own right with 4 seats for Clare and Waterford and 5 for Kerry. I am sure that there will be calls to retain two 3-seat constituencies in Kerry but this would only be possible with a transfer of in excess of 20k people into either or both constituencies. Instead, with just over 2k people above the average, Kerry as a whole is properly represented as a 5-seater.

Cork's population entitles it to 18 TDs in our reduced size Dáil. At present there are two 3-seaters, two 4-seaters and a 5-seater in the county so overall one TD will have to be cut. I propose a significant redrawing of the boundaries within Cork, with the aim of removing as many 3-seaters as possible. To that end, I start by creating a Cork City constituency covering the City Council area along with the northern suburban DEDs of St Mary's, Rathcooney, Riverstown and Caherlag. Next I create a Cork South constituency covering the suburbs of Douglas, Ballincollig and Carrigaline as well as the towns of Cobh, Kinsale and as far down the coast as Clonakilty. The existing Cork East is expanded to take in the more rural parts of the existing Cork North-Central. The remained of the county is merged into Cork West along with the transfer of Mallow from Cork East to Cork West.

This leaves Limerick and Tipperary to sort. Limerick is entitled to 6.6 TDs and Tipperary to 5.6 neither a particularly good number. However, were we to transfer approximately 10k from Tipperary into Limerick then we could make a 5-seater for Tipperary, and split Limerick into a 3-seater for the city area and a 4-seater for the country. The areas I have chosen to move are those around Birdhill and Ballina which have essentially become commuter towns for Limerick city.


The table shows the population and variance for each constituency in Munster. As can be seen we have minimized the number of small constituencies, remained within county boundaries except in one situtation and have kept the variance in population within acceptable bounds. Further minor tweaks could be made to the boundaries to further minimize the variance within Cork and between the two Limerick constituencies.

In the final part of this series I will tackle Dublin and then make some overall conclusions about my choices across the country.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Review of Dail Constituencies (Part 3)

Constituency Sizes

In the previous two parts (here and here) we have established that in the current review the target number of TDs should be set to 160. However, the Commission is free to create 52 three seat constituencies or 32 five seaters or any combination between those extremes. It is my strong personal belief that larger constituencies are better in the PR-STV system as they increase the proportionality of the set of representatives elected.

In the extreme case of single seat constituencies, where PR-STV degenerates into AV, a party could win 49% of the vote in every area and still not win a single seat. This result is highly unlikely of course but the system makes it possible. As the number of members elected by each constituency is increased the proportion of votes . Since the commission is limited to 3, 4 and 5 seat constituencies, I will try to maximize the number of larger constituencies and only use 3 seaters where absolutely necessary to try and fulfill the other requirements placed on the Commission by the legislation.

Division by Region

Taking the 2011 census figures region by region we see that the number of TDs per region should be as follows:


This table starkly shows the growth in population in the Dublin commuter belt compared to the rest of the country. Despite losing 6 TDs from the Dáil, this region actually gains representation. It also shows how few TDs should be assigned to the vast area of Connacht/Ulster, reflecting the relatively low population density in the North and West of the country. Finally, we can see that after the re-drawing, Dublin will still remain the key battleground in any General Election with the largest share of seats up for grabs in the capital.

As a child, my grandmother talked about giving homework a "quick death" by doing the simple things first. In modern management speak that'd be picking off the low hanging fruit. But that always ended up leaving me on a Sunday night with both an Irish and an English essay to write. So this time I'm taking on the toughest task first.

Connacht/Ulster

This is by far the trickiest region to divide into constituencies. The guideline to remain within county boundaries conflicts directly with my desire to minimize the number of 3 seat constituencies. To this struggle we add the relentless calls for the re-unification of Leitrim into a single constituency. This has been a major issue in the public consultation of both this and the 2006 constituency review. To help ease the pressure I am adding the fractional TDs from Dublin and Munster to the Connacht/Ulster. This will bring the total number to be allocated up to 30.

Galway West and Galway East both retain enough population to maintain their current representation of 5 and 4 seats respectively. To rebalance the constituencies more precisely, a total population of about 1200-1500 in one or two of the most easterly districts, Aughrim, Stradbally, Deerpark or Bellville could be moved from West to East but I deem this an unnecessary change in the overall scheme.

In a 160 seat Dáil, Mayo is entitled to 4.6 TDs and Roscommon is entitled to 2.2 TDs or a combined total of 6.8 TDs. I propose creating a 4 seat Mayo and a 3 seat Roscommon-East Mayo constituency. This involves transferring about 18k people from Swinford and Ballyhaunis to form the East Mayo section of the three seater. This leaves both constituencies slightly below the average ratio but within acceptable levels.

The Cavan-Monaghan constituency should have 4.6 TDs. I propose leaving this area with 5 deputies despite that putting them 6.8% below average representation. The alternative would involve moving sections of West Cavan into a constituency with Leitrim or acquiring sections of neighbouring counties in Leinster, neither of which is overly satisfactory.

This leaves Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal. Between them the three counties have an entitlement to exactly 9 TDs which I will divide into a 5 seater covering most of Donegal and a 4 seater covering Leitrim, Sligo and the southern part of Donegal around Bundoran and Ballyshannon.


As can be seen from the table above, six of the seven constituencies have a negative variance, indicating that they are slightly over-represented compared to the national average. However, as mentioned previously, this is expected as we have assigned an additional 0.8 TDs to the region to compensate for the large geographical area.

In the next post I will tackle some lower hanging fruit in the shape of Leinster (excluding Dublin) and Munster.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review of Dail Constituencies (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series can be found here

Terms of Reference

The terms of reference of the Constituency Commission are set out in the Electoral Act of 1997 with subsequent amendments. It lays out fairly clearly the scope within which the Commission have to act in preparing their report.
  1. The number of TDs shall be between 153 and 160. This is a reduction from the original range of 164-168. As far as I know, in previous reviews the Minister issued a further instruction to keep the number of TDs static at 166. This is the first time that the Commission has had free reign to chose the final number of TDs for the country.
  2. All constituencies must have 3, 4 or 5 TDs. Gone are the days of 8 and 9 seaters which may be for the best.
  3. Constituencies must remain within county boundaries if possible. It always amuses me that we are so wedded to the English imposed system of counties, especially the strength county identity has in politics and the GAA. But people seem to like voting along county lines so we try to match our dividing to the pre-existing, arbitrary carve up.
  4. Each constituency must be contiguous. This is a good thing™ as enclaves and exclaves just make for confusion.
  5. Constituency boundaries should be aware of geographic features such as rivers, mountains and major roads and use them appropriately. There is also mention of awareness of population density which I'm not really sure about. Does it mean that each constituency should try to have the same density, which I don't think could work, or that the population density across a constituency should try to be uniform - ie keep urban areas together in one constituency and rural in another?
  6. There should be some consistency between the constituencies before and after the review. This rules out a wholesale redrawing of the map. I'm not surprised this was added by politicians when drawing up the legislation as who wants to have to learn about a whole new constituency every election. However, it does rule out a project like eliminating 3 seaters entirely.
The current review faces a few contradicting instructions due to the change in the overall number of TDs. They mainly come about from the continuity clause, which, it must be noted, is subordinate to all the others.

There are two ways to reduce TD numbers. Firstly you can reduce the number of constituencies by splitting say a four seater and divesting its territory into three surrounding constituencies while only adding a single new TD to each. The alternative is to keep the number of constituencies fixed and turn 5 seaters into 4 seaters and 4s into 3s while shuffling a few DEDs around to keep the population ratios in check. The former is directly at odds with continuity but the latter reduces the overall representativeness of the Dáil.

European Constituencies

While Ireland is historically divided into 4 provinces, for European electoral purposes the split is done slightly differently - Dublin forms a constituency on its own, Munster minus Clare is called South, Leinster minus Dublin, Longford and Westmeath forms East and then Connacht, Ulster along with Clare, Longford and Westmeath make up the North West constituency. With only twelve seats to be distributed that makes each constituency a three seater. The table below shows the distribution of population in each of the four regions.


As can be seen, Dublin is under-represented compared to the rest of the country with only the South region being close to the average. However, in a four way split, there is no straightforward way to remedy this without sub-dividing Dublin further, perhaps moving the Dublin North constituency into East.

An alternative solution that substantially reduces the variance is to re-draw the boundaries to form three constituencies of four seats each. In this scheme I create East, North and South. East consists of Dublin and Kildare. I then extend a line across the south border of Laois and Offaly as far as the Shannon and then down the river to the sea. All counties above the line form the North constituency with those below forming South. The numbers for this division are shown below.


While East is now slightly over represented at the expense of the other two regions, the variances are much smaller. The North constituency now also stretches from Malin Head to Abbeyleix, but considering the existing North West already goes as far as Cratloe outside Limerick it's not much longer. While it may not suit the North candidates to have to canvass such a large area, as the Presidential election showed, even on a small budget, a campaign can cover a large area if properly planned.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review of Dail Constituencies (Part 1)

Introduction

The boundaries of electoral constituencies are not carved in stone. As populations change in areas and the desired ratio of population to politicians changes so too must the boundaries. In the past this activity was in the direct control of the Minister for the Environment (or more accurately the Minister for Local Government at the time) but after incidents like the Tullymander in the 70s this power was passed off to an independant commission in the Electoral Act of 1997. The Constituency Commission is headed up by Justice Cooke and includes the Clerks of the Dail and Seanad, the Secretay General of the Dept of Environment and the Ombudsman.

Following the preliminary results of the census in April, the Minister has instructed the Commission to have another look at the Dáil boundaries, specifically asking them to reduce the number of TDs to between 153 and 160. There is currently an open call for submissions to the Commission and this series of blog posts will be distilled down to something vaguely coherent and sent to them on my behalf. The closing date is sometime in mid January so other interested people have time to do some thinking. It seems at the moment that the unify Leitrim and Swords campaigns are going to dominate the submissions.

Population

The preliminary 2011 census figures put the population of Ireland at 4,239,848 which is up 341,421 (8.1% over 5 years or 1.6% per annum) from the 2006 census total. While the Commission can only work on exact figures from the CSO and not projections, as detailed in the 2009 Electoral Act, it is worth looking a bit forward. The next General Election is not scheduled until February 2016, but it is possible that date may be brought forward to Summer 2015 to allow for better campaigning weather and higher turnout. The table below outlines the potential population per TD over time under four growth models: 1.6% per year as national population increased 2006-11, 1.4% per year as Dublin population increased 2006-11, 0.8% - half the national rate, and 0.7% - half the Dublin rate.


The cells in red mark the points at which the representation falls outside the thresholds mandated by the constitution of between 20,000 and 30,000 people per TD. As can be seen, even in the lowest growth model, reducing the number of TDs to 156 would cause problems come 2015. Using the highest growth model, we are in trouble almost immediately at the lower range of TDs and even by 2015 having 160 TDs would be too few for the constitutional limits. After the 2016 census will likely have to increase the number of TDs again to get the ratio back below the 30,000 limit. Of course there is nothing preventing either a specific referendum or the forum on the constitution from modifying the ratio in which case the issue may disappear.

Ideal number of Politicians

For many, the ideal number of politicians is either zero ("they're all useless") or one ("put me in charge as dictator"). However, studies have shown that most national parliaments have a number of members in line with the cube root of the population. In Ireland's case this turns out to be 161.85 national politicians. Were the proposed dissolution of the Seanad to happen, it would turn out that the Dáil as currently constituted would be pretty close to the ideal number of members. A reduction to 160 would be perfectly acceptable but the more we cut the further away from the ideal we get.

In announcing the formation of the Commission, Minister Phil Hogan claimed the review would be a "real, tangible reform" making the system "leaner and more efficient for its citizens". Now in all honesty, does the Minister really think that cutting the number of TDs is a real reform? All it does is reduce representation to save money. I would much rather a cut of 10% in the costs of running the Oireachtas than a cut of 10% of its members. But I guess he has to take a fairly populist line in this era of austerity and have politicians being seen to be taking the pain alongside the little people.

Coming Next

In the next few posts I'm going to have a look at how a potential 160 seat Dáil might be constituted, taking a fairly high level view of the provinces and going into a bit more detail in the Dublin area where I have a better understanding of the lie of the land.

Part 2 here.

PS - If anyone has any great experience of using qGIS or other free shapefile modifier please get in touch to help me draw some pretty maps of my carvings! The CSO kindly provide population and geographical breakdowns of every DED in the country for personal and educational use but I'm a bit lost at sea!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What a difference a night makes

There was a little girl who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad, she was horrid.

While Vincent Browne is neither a girl (fully grown man) nor has a little curl (lots of curls), this little ditty could easily have been penned about his late night show on TV3. Since the show started I have been quite the fan, but of late I have become less enamoured of my late night political gossip. Too many shows end up with the same old faces making the same old points and so since the start of the Presidential Election campaign I have actually given up watching except for odd occasions.

However, the last few weeks have seen my schedule become more regimented and I find myself sitting on the couch waiting for 1AM to roll around so I can give Ailbhe her final feed and then go to bed. This has led to my getting back into the swing of JML ads, snippets of Family Guy on BBC3 and relentless frustration from Vincent with all of his guests. And like the poem, some of the shows have been amazing and some awful.

Take for example the day that Sinn Féin produced their budget proposal (16th November). Joining Vincent were Pearse Doherty from SF and Simon Coveney from FG who spent the entire show tearing strips off each other. Coveney was shown to be either completely clueless, completely unbriefed or else told to fall on his sword to avoid letting any pre-budget strategy be revealed. It also helped that Marie Sherlock from SIPTU was on the panel and she made some particularly insightful contributions attacking both the SF and FG positions as required.

On the other hand the following evening Aodhán Ó'Ríordáin was part of the panel discussing the number of election promises that had been broken by the government since taking office in March. This was the most mind numblingly boring episode I'd seen in a long time. There was no real debate between the panelists and despite his best efforts, Vincent couldn't get the deputy to admit to any broken promises at all.

Last night was another doozy, where Constantin Gurdgiev destroyed Damien English on the potential collapse of the Euro. While I don't think the doomsday scenario outlined by Gurdgiev, he had the figures and the expertise to back up his position. English didn't want to even engage in a what-if scenario and could only repeat the mantra claiming the ECB would do the right thing this time. Again, maybe he was badly briefed, but English came out of the show very badly. One wonders why FG continue to send out people like him and Paschal Donohue rather than some of the heavy hitters like Shatter, Bruton, Noonan or Reilly. I guess it's the same reason Conor Lenihan was such a regular on #vinb before the election - plausible deniability for the government.

I'll keep on watching and hope for more fireworks in the next few weeks as the budget appears and the Eurozone continues to flounder from crisis to crisis.

PS - there's a really good piece written by Stephen Kinsella posted on Irish Economy. Definitely worth a read.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Reduced capital programme

I have written more than once about the major transport initiatives in the Dublin area, namely Metro North, Dart Interconnector and Luas BXD. With the publication the other day of the revised, and greatly slashed, capital budget it seems apt to mention them again.

It seems as though the only project that will now be completed will be the Luas extension from Stephen's Green through the city centre up to Broombridge Station. Of course, like all the big projects, it has been scheduled for the end of the time period of the project so it is the most likely to get chopped completely if there are further cuts required or other projects run over budget.

Two other projects in the North Inner City are worth mentioning. The Children's Hospital will go ahead with funding up front from the renewal of the Lottery license but the amalgamation of DIT onto the single campus in Grangegorman will not. It does seem odd that we will now have a Luas line missing its biggest source of passengers while we build a hospital without any mass transit to deliver patients, parents and visitors.

Slashing the capital budget is, in my mind, a short sighted and cowardly way to balance the books. By their very nature, capital investments are good for the country in that they provide employment while they are being delivered and then provide benefit to the community once finished. This is true of school building, hospitals, roads, railways and every other capital project. Borrowing for capital is good, and in many cases is to be encouraged.

It is far harder to hit the recurrent budget as it covers civil and public servants' wages and pensions as well as welfare payments. But it is the only real way to make long term savings that will close the gap between income and expenditure. With Croke Park freezing pay, it looks like natural wastage, retirement schemes and continued recruitment embargoes will be the order of the day.

The only other option is to increase revenue through taxation which sounds great to the Occupy brigade. Sure, tax the rich and make them pay. But the super rich will tend to up sticks and leave. The easiest target is the middle classes who are already paying at the higher rate. By reducing credits and bumping the top rate up a point or two more could be squeezed from this cohort (which includes me). And to be fair, we could probably take it. But we are also the very people who voted for FG and Labour so I'm not sure how politically astute it is to antagonize the very people who elected you.

Once I get time to trawl through some Revenue figures I'll come back to this topic. But for the moment let me finish by giving Minister Howlin's plan a 3/10 with a strong recommendation that he try a bit harder in future to make serious reform plans rather than tinkering at the edges.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

New team member

At the end of my last post I promised a more regular stream of consciousness/rubbish would appear on this blog now that the election and referendums were over. To that end I had started in to a series of posts on the constituency review process and some related modest proposals when reality got in the way again. Early on Friday morning, about three weeks ahead of schedule, Pass Level Politics acquired a new contributor called Ailbhe.


So for the next 18 to 30 years my life will be somewhat changed. It also means this blog may take on a slightly different slant as issues that I previously never cared much about become the most important things in the world. I'll still try to stick to the general current affairs/politics remit and will leave baby specific stuff to John over on To The Max which has the huge benefit of teaching me everything I need to know about 4 months in advance. But I may just lapse once in a while, but I'm going to claim that as author and parent's prerogative.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bonds and loose change

Tomorrow sees the repayment of about $1,000,000,000 of unguaranteed bonds owed by the rump of Anglo. This is the money that Dana was mentioning at every opportunity during the last few presidential debates. This equates to about €730,000,000 or in some more manageable terms, heading towards twice the total spend on Special Needs Assistants for a full year or about 20% of the cutbacks that are going to be announced in the upcoming budget.

The argument for paying goes along the lines of this: the EU/IMF deal has us going back to the market next year. If we don't pay back this bond the reputational damage done to Ireland will so great that we won't be able to afford to go back to the market at a reasonable rate. Therefore we must pay back these bonds at face value to have credit available to us in the future. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?

Except it isn't. These are unguaranteed bonds that have been traded multiple times since issue with the current owners probably paying somewhere around 10c in the euro to mop them up. So the original lenders have already taken losses on these bonds. The current owners are hedge funds and the like who are looking to make a killing when Ireland Inc foolishly pays back face value on bonds that are effectively junk.

Of course I am just guessing that these bonds are held by hedge funds as nobody will actually say who holds these instruments. We have no idea who the owners are and whether they are the same institutions who will be our lenders in the bond market in the future. However, the cloak of secrecy surrounding their identity suggests to me that they are not the same people.

I'm also getting sick of Ireland trying to be the best boy in the class while Greece gets 50% hair cuts, second bailouts and a referendum on their financial future. while I wouldn't suggest becoming the rebellious punk that is Greece, we could at least ruffle our hair once in a while, open the top button on our shirt or wear mismatching socks. We still are, despite the best efforts of Fianna Fáil, a sovereign nation and should play that card once in a while. We have made some progress on the reduced interest rates, you just get the feeling that we're still sucking up to teacher in the hopes that someone else will get into trouble before us.

Speaking of trouble, I really can't believe that €3.6B was mislaid in a transfer between two state agencies, namely NTMA and the Housing Finance Agency. How someone doesn't immediately notice that rather than going up by €3.6B that their overall balance went down by the same amount is outrageous. I would certainly know if my wages were taken out of my current account on the 20th of every month rather than deposited. It makes you wonder what sort of quality control and monthly account reconciliation is going on over at the HFA.

PS - now that #aras11 is over I'll be getting back into more regular blogging. Huzzah say the masses!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Duty done

So that's my democratic duty definitely finished for this year. I hit the polling station in Harold's Cross at about 7:20 this morning on my way in to work. Turns out I was the 3rd punter to come through the door so definitely not what you'd call brisk.

On the two referenda I quickly marked the No box on both. I had decided over a week ago that I wasn't really in favour of McCarthyite Star Kangaroo Chambers so that was an easy one. The Judicial Pay issue was a bit more tricky as part of me feels that those pompus gits in wigs deserve to be taken down a notch or two. However, after much mulling over, I reckoned this was not the approach that the state should take. There are just too many potentials for abuse in the wording presented.

For the Áras, it was a no brainer putting 1 beside Michael D's name. After that I struggled for a while before putting 2 opposite Norris and 3 for McGuinness. Next came Mitchel and Davis. Finally, though it pained me hugely, I put Dana somewhere other than bottom of the list to reserve that special place for Sean Gallagher.

With that done, the question is what's next for my adventures in the Rosary Pastoral Centre. It would be nice to have a look at the Children's Referendum or perhaps the removal of Blasphemy from the Bunreacht. Or perhaps I will have to wait for the outcome of the promised Constitutional Convention that might redraft the whole thing. Any which way, I look forward to my next visit to the polling booth.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Aras so far

After all the excitement of the nomination process, especially the last minute additions of Dana and Norris to the ballot paper, the actual Áras campaign has been fairly boring. Despite all the debates, newspaper columns and comment the election is pretty much going as predicted. For a position that has almost no power or freedom, an awful lot of energy (mostly in the form of hot air) has gone into the campaign already.

Michael D Higgins is playing the safe pair of hands game and doing it well. Hasn't put a foot wrong and has impressed in both the Late Late and TV3 debates. The posters are a bit odd to my mind and standing on the box on the Vincent Browne debate was hilarious, but otherwise a solid showing so far.

Gay Mitchell on the other hand, as the candidate of the party with over twice the support of any other, has been a disaster. You'd think that after the parliamentary party picked Mitchell over Mairead McGuinness and Pat Cox that they'd go out and mobilize the troops but it doesn't seem to be working at all.

The other daft tactic of Mitchell's is the relentless attacks on Martin McGuinness. All it is doing is solidifying McGuinness' base, especially the young, unemployed males who already don't like FG. McGuinness will poll a respectable 18%-20% but won't have the transfers to pull off the win.

Mary Davis has finally been shown up as the fake that she is. Her relentless pushing of her work in the voluntary sector was shattered by publishing her P60. Her involvement in various public and private boards didn't help much either. And the less said about the Special K posters the better.

Sean Gallagher has impressed me more than I expected. He gives fairly straight answers to questions put. However, the huge issue of his close association with Fianna Fáil will still be his downfall. It's not like he was just a member of a local Cumman. He was on the national executive and being touted as a potential Dáil candidate for the General Election earlier this year.

Dana, despite her relentless constitution waving, is also a spent force. While she will act as a rallying point to the Eurosceptics, her general lack of understanding of the role of President as well as her general batyness will see her languishing in the 5% region.

And that leaves us with David Norris or the Comeback Kid as he has taken to calling himself. My opinion and position on him hasn't changed since the summer. I still think there are too many unanswered questions and his demeanour and behaviour in the two TV debates have not impressed me one bit. He will pull in a respectable vote, possibly fourth on 1st preferences but won't be there at the business end of the count.

So that's it. I'm fed up with #aras11 already. I can't wait for the next two weeks to pass and then I'll vote and be done with it. Unless something amazing happens I'm not going to post about it again until the votes are counted.

In fact the best thing about this election is the series of videos being posted on Youtube by Cutbacks2010. See below for an example.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Nomination confusion

I'm slightly confused about this whole County/City Council nomination process for the Presidential Election. Today in Carlow motions to nominate David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon were tabled. From the reports it seems as though the Norris motion was tied 5-5 and then rejected by the chair using the casting vote. Then Dana's nomination was passed. So far, so good.

But here's where my confusion comes in. What would have happened if the chair had voted in favour of Norris? Would Dana's motion then have been voted upon? The constitution is very clear that each nominating body or oireachtas member can support only one candidacy. Would they have nominated the candidate whose motion received the most support? Or the first one that was passed? If the latter, then how is the order of hearing motions decided - is it first come, first served or are lots drawn?

I'm sure that somewhere in the County Manager's rule book all this is made clear but I haven't been able to find a clear answer on this. Anyone got any pointers?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bashing McGuinness

Since Martin McGuinness joined the race to the Áras, most of the commentary has surrounded his less than squeaky clean past. This has come from the media, bloggers and also the political arena itself. The latest is Fintan O'Toole's piece in today's Irish Times where he suggests McGuinness could be liable for war crimes.

I'm no fan of McGuinness and certainly won't be voting for him. The farce that is Northern politics has shown him to be fairly inept in an executive role. The actions of Sinn Féin in government up North have shown them to be a fairly right-wing, conservative party, quite at odds with the image they try to portray down here. His following Gerry Adams into southern politics also shows either a contempt for people who have worked hard for SF in the Republic or an effective evacuation of Stormont by the heavy hitters.

However, I strongly object to people relentlessly harping back to McGuinness' past involvement in the IRA from the 70s onwards. Sure, he carried out some pretty awful acts and refused to recognise the authority of the Irish Courts. But when we down south voted 94% in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, we effectively said that we accept that there was a war being fought, but that now we were entering the peace and that we were drawing a line in the sand. Therefore we have to live with our decision and allow those combatants to re-enter normal society and that includes electoral politics.

Friday, September 16, 2011

And then there were four, no five, no six, no seven

The presidential election has certainly sparked to life again in the last few days. Firstly Davis and Gallagher rustled up the requisite number of councils. Then Norris started playing the Lanigan's Ball game - in then out then in again. Next Fianna Fáil get back in the game with rumours of Lamhrás Ó Murchú planning a run. The just this afternoon news is leaked that Martin McGuinness will be the Sinn Féin candidate. Phew! Lets look at each of these bits one at a time.

Early on in the week both Mary Davis and Sean Gallagher managed to secure nominations from at least four county or city councils, making them the third and fourth official candidates on the ballot paper after Gay Mitchell and Michael D Higgins. Not content with four nominations, Davis continued to have motions of support passed ending up with around 10. To my mind this was a bit of a risky move. While supporters will argue that it shows she has the backing of people from around the country, I think that it will be more played as a blocking move, using up nominations so that other candidates can't enter the race. This is certainly the line that Gallagher took, requesting that motions to support him be removed from the agenda at other council meetings once he had his four secured.

The David Norris re-appeared. We all know how his previous exit from the race went (here and here) so I am hugely surprised that he is trying to come back. True, he finished his speech with the phrase "fail better" but I wasn't really expecting him to prove it so quickly. The issues surrounding his withdrawal haven't changed or gone away. I am also pretty sure that a good number of his previous Oireachtas supporters have left him, not to mention his campaign staff. He also returned all his campaign finances and so is starting from scratch. I don't expect to see his name on the ballot paper come polling day.

Micheal Martin really can't win on this one. Having decided to not put forward an official Fianna Fáil candidate, he should have issued an edict that TDs and Senators were to not get involved in the nomination game. However, he left the door open and talk started about FF members nominating someone who wouldn't be an FF candidate. Then to top it all off, Lamhrás Ó Murchú, the FF Senator who lost the whip over the civil partnership bill last year, has indicated a desire and willingness to stand. Of all the people FF could put up, Ó Cuív and Crowley being the obvious choices, Ó Murchú is pretty much near the bottom of the list. FF should be just concentrating on the Dublin West by election and scoring points against the government in the run up to the budget.

Our latest entry to the field is the Deputy First Minister from the North, Martin McGuinness. He is the best choice they have since Pearse Doherty doesn't meet the age requirement. Of course, SF only have 17 Oireachtas members so there are three others signing his papers. I'm guessing they'll be from the ranks of the ULA. Of course the announcement had to be delayed until today so McGuinness can apply for the 6 week sabbatical from being DFM, much as Peter Robinson did during the UK General Election. It will be very interesting to see how both the media and the other parties treat the entry of SF into the race. Given the absolute destruction that was rained down on Norris I'm looking forward to seeing a similar level of investigation into McGuinness. I don't expect him to win, but they will poll a respectable 12%-15% which may put them third on the first count. I think they would count that as a victory, especially given the lack of an official FF candidate.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Yet another September 11th post

Yeah I know, there's nothing original in writing about September 11th. But as the defining event of the last decade, much the way the fall of the Berlin Wall defined the 90s, it would be a bit churlish to ignore the 10 year anniversary. There have been reams of articles written about the appropriateness of the Bush regime's response. The initial Afghan campaign was probably justified. The follow on shenanigans in Iraq definitely not.

To most people, the biggest impact of 9/11 has been the increase in the security farce surrounding air travel. In 2001 I happened to be in at a conference in Edinburgh where I watched events unfold. The chance in airport security from the flight over on the Saturday and the return home on the Wednesday evening were stark. This "increase" in security, not only in airports, but throughout our daily lives, has come at a cost.

Obviously in the immediate aftermath of such an event there is going to be an over-reaction. But the fact that the security industry has been able to keep the fear levels high and use it to remove hard earned civil liberties, especially in the US and UK, is depressing. Increased powers of stop and search, massive rollouts of CCTV and the use of financial and online profiling have all been introduced in order to "protect" us. Add to that the use of torture and rendition, especially the use of Shannon Airport, and you have to start asking yourself has it all been worthwhile.

The short answer from the hawks is to point out that, despite London, Madrid and Bali, by and large there hasn't been another 9/11 and so the measures are justified. The response from the doves is that between 100,000 and 1,000,000 people have been killed directly as a result of the 9/11 fallout in Iraq and Afghanistan and so the response has failed. Personally I'm more in the latter camp.

I have nothing new to say on this issue. The events of 9/11 were awful, a tragedy. But the response has been just as bad. We have moved from a peaceful, positive world in 2001 to a more violent, negative one in 2011. Does that mean the terrorists have won? Probably not. But they've advanced their agenda a whole lot with some unexpected allies in the governments of the West. You can't declare war on an abstract noun and expect to win.

Finally, in true lefty form, September 11th is the anniversary of a whole load of other world events which also deserve recognition. Here are some of them.

  • 1649 - Cromwell loots Drogheda and massacres the inhabitants
  • 1919 - The US invades Honduras to prop up the original banana republic
  • 1973 - Pinochet takes over in Chile following a CIA backed coup
  • 1977 - Stephen Biko arrested and killed in South Africa

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kite flying at Iarnrod Eireann

The last week has seen a flurry of short newspaper articles about rail services in Ireland. On Monday, Tuesday and Friday we were treated to regurgitated press releases about investments in intercity lines to reduce travel times and a spur to Dublin Airport from the northern commuter line. Then to top it all off on Saturday we were treated to an editorial summing up the week's propaganda.

Now as regular readers will know, I'm all in favour of rail as a mode of transport. In an ideal world I would have most commuting, much freight and a substantial amount of inter-urban travel done by train. However, these announcements are not realistic proposals to improve the rail service in Ireland. They are kite flying exercises by Iarnród Éireann in the hopes that some scraps of funding will be sent their way if sufficient projects are proposed.

With regard to the Inter City improvements, the logic here seems to be that
  1. Trains used to be faster than cars
  2. We spent loads of money on motorways
  3. Road trips between cities are now faster than the train
  4. We should spend loads of money on trains to match (or beat) road travel times
While I would advocate investment in our heavy rail infrastructure it has to be for the right reasons and losing market share to buses and cars is not a valid reason. Colm McCarthy, of Bord Snip fame, also had a go at this plan recently. Written for the Farmers' Journal it has to get in swipes at the jackeens living in Dublin, and he makes some unfair comparisons to make his points. Comparing a road trip from the Red Cow to Dunkettle is not the same as one from Heuston to Kent stations. He needs to add at least 30 minutes to his trip time, and during rush hour you could easily make that over an hour. All of a sudden the train starts being competitive again.

The second proposal, linking Dublin Airport to Connolly via the existing rail line from Clongriffin is daft. It has already been rejected several times by commentators, planners and even Iarnród Éireann themselves as unworkable. If just the spur was built, the journey would take approximately 40 minutes, already longer than bus journeys via the Port Tunnel and would run at most once every 15-20 minutes due to existing congestion on the mainline. The way round this bottleneck is to quad-track the line from Clongriffin to Clontarf but that would involve substantial engineering works, not to mention CPOing swathes of back gardens through Clontarf, Killester and Raheny.

As always with Dublin transport it boils down to two issues - Interconnector and Metro North. At this stage I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record but, despite the recession, they are no brainers. Just do it! When the economy picks up again in the future, McCarthy will be the very one giving out about Dublin traffic and how it is killing the economy.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Summer Reading

Before we get stuck into the Presidential Election I thought I might round out the summer silly season by revealing what has been keeping me entertained over the summer.

The First Law Trilogy - Joe Abercrombie

Normally I try to go for slightly more high-brow stuff in reading Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I know, oxymoron if ever there was. But in this case it was exactly what I was looking for. Cheesy, sprawling epic with so much fighting you start to get bored. But with all the humour and self-referential moments I couldn't put the books down.

Triumph of the City - Edward Glaeser

An interesting read on why and how cities are economically and environmentally superior to other forms of living. This is a the books I picked up after seeing the author interviewed on The Daily Show (Jon Stewart, not RTE). While I tend to agree with his overall premise, he does seem a bit too lax on planning and zoning, with a strong belief in the market's ability to solve everything. I wonder if it could be put on a reading list for city and county councillors?

The Information - James Gleick

As a teenager, James Gleick's Chaos was the book that probably pushed me to study maths in college. Based on how that career ended up, that may not be a glowing reference but it was certainly a seminal book. So I was quite excited to see that after a long break, Gleick was back writing again. And what a book. Covering the history of computing, communication and coding with lots of entertaining anecdotes. All the usual heroes of the story are covered as are many names that I didn't recognize but whose contributions to technology are huge.

A Kingdom Besieged - Raymond E Feist

So I claimed my fantasy was usually a bit more high brow. Well this isn't it. Feist is my guilty please. He hasn't written a really good book in years (Shadow of a Dark Queen?) but I can't help but get sucked in every time a new book is published. And he's done it again with the start of another series in the Riftwar cycle. I couldn't actually tell you what happened in this book except the Kingdom gets invaded by Kesh. The rest is the same as in every other series but I'll keep reading them nonetheless.

Dave Gorman vs The Rest of the World

A highly entertaining read as Dave Gorman challenges the world to games of anything from ping pong, to laser-based boardgames of the 80s. Read this straight through in one day.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson

A room by room history of everything that happens in the home. As with all Bryson books, full of quirky little bits of information. But a hefty tome - you wouldn't want to be reading it while standing on the bus or train. Definitely one for the comfort of the couch.

A Dance with Dragons - George R.R. Martin

Amazing. Well worth the wait. Not going to say anything else for fear of spoilers!

Transition - Iain Banks

This on the other hand was pretty poor. Daft premise, irritating characters and disjointed story. Probably should have given up about half way through but fell for sunk cost fallacy.

The Ripple Effect - Alex Prud'homme

Another Daily Show suggestion. With all the recent talk about Dublin's water issues, both mains and sewage, along with the Shannon scheme, this was an interesting perspective on how the water issue plays out in the US. While it was a bit of a slog to read at times, there was a lot of information and useful lessons that could be learned. Another one for the politicians' reading list.

Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks

Still reading this, but it really shows that The Culture novels are where Banks really shines. Having the point-of-view characters die in both of the first two chapters is an interesting way to start a book. Can't help but love it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Let them eat ... bread

This evening on the way home from work I had to stop off into the supermarket to pick up a few items. Normally I just lob the groceries in the basket, paying no attention to the prices, and then hand over my hard earned cash. This evening though, for some reasons I noticed something a bit odd while picking up some bread.

Normally we get through about 3/4 of a sliced pan before it goes stale and starts turning a bit blue. So being my environmentally conscious self I had a look to see if they had any small pans on the shelf. Usually by 6pm the few that were delivered that morning are well gone but today I was in luck. There on the top shelf was a small Brennan's (non batch) waiting to find a new home. Yoink says I, until I noticed the price sticker underneath - €1.39. Casting a downwards glance I see plenty of full sized loaves prices at €1.60.

Now with my ostentatious cash splashing and jet-set lifestyle I shouldn't really be quibbling over 21c but it does strike me as odd that pro-rata the full sized loaf should cost 67% more or the half sized 43% less. I can accept that there are economies of scale in the larger loaf. I imagine that about 90% of bread is sold in the larger form factor. But is the cost differential really that much? While it uses about 15% more packaging per kg, it takes up the same amount of shelf space.

So who is pocketing the margin? Is it the bakeries or the retailers? Or is it just a case of this is what the market is willing to bear? To make this post even slightly political, one wonders was this price differential always the case, even in the era of the Grocieries Order. If not, then Micheál Martin has to bear some responsibility for this fiasco. I'll just add it to his long list of failures.

So in the end I put the small pan back on the shelf and took the large one. It's better value for money even if I know I'll end up putting the last few slices into the brown bin at the weekend.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The UK riots

I was in the process of writing a blog post comparing three locations I had recently been in the UK, namely London, Nottingham and Bradford, when the rioting broke out. I'll come back to that topic eventually but feel that writing some thoughts about the current situation is more urgent.

The original peaceful protest on Saturday afternoon/evening in Tottenham was fully understandable. The community felt that one of their own had been unnecessarily killed and wanted to mark their feelings. How we got from there to sporadic burning, looting and general mayhem in multiple locations within the London and indeed around the UK is beyond understanding. Any answer to the question that can fit within the confines of a blog post is going to be glib and miss many of the potential points. However, that's what blogs do so I'll at least try to hit some points.

The original riot may have been in response to Mark Duggan's killing but to my mind the following two evenings have been mainly copy-cat vandalism and thuggery rather than a traditional riot with a political or social injustice dimension. Sure, those carrying out the acts are mainly male youths from disadvantaged areas but look at what the targets are: mobile phone, sports and technology shops. All items either of status or reasonably high resale value.

But why do people feel that they should carry out such acts? Marginalization from society? Poverty? Lack of civic responsibility? Lack of fear of being caught? Adrenaline rush and a herd mentality? Probably a mixture of all of the above. There are solutions to these but they take time to implement. Despite all my socialist tendencies, reality says that a society will never be fully equal but efforts have to be made to heal the rift between the top and bottom. Even using this language makes me feel ick. Those with nothing have to be brought into the fold and those with everything have to be made give a shit about others. It's not good enough to sit back and tut-tut.

The response by the police may not have been great, but given their numbers and the number of concurrent incidents it may have been deemed safer to let the looters run their course and contain the damage rather than clamp down. The right decision was made to leave the army off the streets. They are not specifically trained to deal with these situations and introducing firearms into the mix would only have ended badly. It was also right to not bail in with baton charges and tear gas. This would only piss off the communities and bystanders and turn them against the police rather than keep their anger and frustration pointed at the rioters.

The biggest fear is that these events are just the start of something more serious. If a body count starts mounting you can be sure the extreme fringes on all sides will get more vocal. The last group we need to be hearing from right now is the BNP or the radical muslim clerics stoking up further tension.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The continuing Norris saga

So as expected, TDs who had previously committed to supporting David Norris have now started to withdraw support. Finian McGrath led the charge, quickly followed by John Halligan and Thomas Pringle. It really does appear as if the campaign is now in its final days or even hours. Since my last blog post on Saturday night a few more issues have come up that I want to address.

One comment suggested that I was holding Norris to a higher standard than any of the other candidates. To quote Brian Lenihan, I don't accept that at all. The president is the leading citizen of the country and has to be held to a higher standard. I mentioned Bobby Molloy's and Kathleen Lynch's stupid interventions previously. Add to that list Charlie Flanagan, Tony Kileen and even Trevor Sargent who did equally stupid things. But none of them are running for President. If Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher or MDH made equally ill-advised submissions to courts then I'd be taking them to task also.

And then there's Gay Mitchell. He is another person who made a submission to a court. While I haven't seen the original document, I gather that it was to a court in Florida asking for a death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment for a man convicted of a double murder in pursuit of his anti-abortion agenda. This was done while Mitchell was Fine Gael Foreign Affairs spokesman. This again is interference in the judicial affairs of a foreign state and is again unacceptable unless it is FG policy to plea for clemency in every capital case. But I doubt it is. This case played to Mitchell's religious right, Iona Institute buddies and so the letter was sent.

There is still the ongoing Zionist agenda stuff doing the rounds too. Occam's razor kicks in at some point. The case was over ten years ago, reported on in newspapers and Norris has even spoken about it on radio interviews. It doesn't take the Illuminati to hide his submission for a decade and a half before releasing it at the right moment. It was out there waiting to be found but nobody went looking. Blame lazy journalism, blame lack of interest, but don't channel Jim Corr and invent a worldwide conspiracy against Norris.

Finally, if Norris withdraws, that puts 15 nominations back in play. Will there be another candidate put forward by that group? Or by the ULA/SF? Except that I think his health might get in the way I'd make an approach to Christy Moore. He's a strong lefty, republican but in a clean way and extremely popular across the country. That would certainly put the cat amongst the political pigeons.

PS - thanks to all for reading. Previous blog post was my 2nd most read post in almost two years of this carry on.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Norris Implosion

Update Sunday morning: Apologies if you have been led here by a Fox News style tag. I would never claim to be fair or balanced, more a shoot from the hip kinda person. I am not a journalist and am just writing what I think at any given moment. Feel free to disagree with me, you certainly won't be the first to do so!

Only a few weeks ago I was convinced that David Norris would get his nomination sorted out and appear on the ballot for the Presidential Election in October. How times have changed, especially in the last 24 hours. Following the no show at Magill, the resignation of key members of staff and finally the release of the letter to the Israeli court David Norris' plans to become Uachtarán na hÉireann have been well and truly scuppered.

Ignoring the whole Zionist conspiracy angle which I don't buy into at all, especially the Shatter as sleeper Mossad agent (!!) bit, there are a few points worth noting in this sorry tale.

Firstly, Norris' use of official Seanad paper in his letter was wrong, especially when he used his membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee to try to add to the importance of his message. He was not acting on behalf of the Committee and, honestly, not really acting in the interests of his electorate either. While the Bobby Molloy and Kathleen Lynch stories, probably two amongst many other such instances, show that politicians make unwise representations but the standard for being President has to be above these sorts of actions.

Secondly, he seems to be trying to come up with mitigating circumstances for statutory rape. Whatever about our morals and thoughts on the age of consent, the law in Israel at the time was pretty clear. It had a small set of conditions which had to be met to allow sex with someone underage one of which was a closeness in age. In this case there was about 20 years between the two parties. Therefore the exception didn't apply and Yizhak was found pleaded guilty. Norris' fourth point is the most galling where he tries to claim that there is a difference between hetero and homosexual relations that excuse this act. I'm sorry, but in no circumstances is it acceptable for someone in their mid thirties to be carrying on with a 15 year old. That's me and a girl who has just done the Junior Cert. No way, end of.

Thirdly, he should have been up front with his own team about this issue from day one. I have not been impressed with much of the Norris campaign so far - it seems fairly disorganized and not really prepared to take on the main parties. For Norris to leave this timebomb hidden from his own staff is crazy. If they had the information they could have been on top of the story. Instead they rightly called it a day. I certainly don't blame them if this is the sort of issues are going to be dumped on you.

It will also be interesting to see what happens to the 15 names that have already committed to nominating him. So far I have only seen Senator John Crown come out and say that he is still willing to sign his papers. Like his campaign team, his Oireachtas colleagues should have been treated with a bit more respect. Having heard the retreat being sounded by Fianna Fáil on Saturday View today, Norris' prospects of getting the magic twenty are disappearing rapidly.

I don't want this to turn into an anti-Norris rant. I have met David on several occasions when our paths crossed, mainly with the Carmichael Centre for Voluntary Groups and he has always been extremely supportive of their work. During the Seanad election campaign we met a couple of times and even though we were supposed rivals he always had a kind word of encouragement. As a person he is extremely likable, but as a President I now have serious doubts. There are too many unanswered questions and probably more to come out.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Norway

Five days have passed since the horrific attacks in Norway. In that time many column miles have been written describing and analyzing the events and to them I have nothing to add. That a single person can cause such carnage, especially to the young people at the summer camp, is a depressing thought. However, there are two responses to the tragedy that I want to comment on.

Despite being caught up in the moment, the statements of both the Mayor of Oslo and the Norwegian Prime Minister are full of hope. "We shall punish the terrorist, and this will be his punishment: more democracy, more tolerance, more generosity.” How strong a statement is that? "The answer to violence is even more democracy.” Awesome. Full marks for the Norwegian politicians for providing inspiring leadership just when it is required the most.

The other side is that awful gobshite of the US right, Glen Beck. His response to the killings was to compare the summer camp to Hitler Youth and then to blame multi-culturalism for the whole tragedy. A summer camp to encourage kids to get involved in the democratic process is "disturbing"? Nowhere near as disturbing as a man who uses a huge tragedy to score some rating points by being as offensive as possible. It was funny being a shock jock 20 years ago when Howard Stern started out. Now it is just pathetic.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lifestyle Choices

Normally the Sunday Independent and me are pretty far apart. My only coverage of the paper is through the Cedar Lounge Revolution and their Sindo Stupid Statement of the Week column. So I was somewhat shocked to hear via Twitter and others that they had a piece quoting Joan Burton, Minister for Social Protection, as saying unemployment is a lifestyle choice for school leavers.

In the article she is quoted as saying there are "people who come into the system straight after school as a lifestyle choice". The interpretation is that rather than seek further education or find a job that there are loads of people out there who would rather spend their lives in the scratcher. The idea that a Labour Minister charged with protecting the most vulnerable would come out on the offensive against welfare recipients made me sick.

At the moment most people leaving school who don't continue in education can't find work because of the economic meltdown we are now in rather than won't. These people, mainly young men under 23, are given the princely sum of €100 per week on which to live. Hardly creaming it. The jobs initiative was meant to help these people, but so far the unemployment figures are only being kept under control by the valve of emigration.

Then I considered the source, the Sindo. They very helpfully opens the article with the statement "Social welfare has become a 'lifestyle choice' for many leaving school" helpfully inserting the word many which wasn't seen attributed to the Minister. All of a sudden the initial statement has been tarnished by the sub-editor deciding to spice up the wording. If you replace the word "many" with "some" or maybe "a few" then the reader is lead to a much more acceptable viewpoint. Yes there are going to be a few layabouts in every society.

But that wouldn't suit the Sindo's agenda - all welfare recipients are doing it out of choice. This plays right into Marc Coleman's mythical middle Ireland where the hard working, conservative, Catholic majority are silenced and the Sindo must ride to their rescue. But as Johnny Fallon said, ironically in a weekday Indo blog, "the only people I have ever heard suggest that social welfare is a great life, are those who say it from the comfort of their own safe job and welfare never tempts them to give up that job."

On RTE's Morning Ireland, Minister Burton started to give a much more nuanced position. Rather than just a single quote out of context she was given a good run to explain her views. Far more reasonable. Sure Joan, go tackle fraud in welfare. By her estimate there is between €200M and €500M of fraud in the system. But don't forget to tackle some other lifestyle choices including tax exiles, reckless borrowing and excessive bonuses that have defrauded the state of far more resources than welfare recipients ever will.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Copyright Review Committee

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has launched a review of the copyright laws. An expert committee, chaired by my good friend Eoin O'Dell has been established to examine some of the issues. A public meeting was held last week which I attended. At the meeting attendees were asked to make written submissions to the committee before the deadline of 14th July. Below is the text of my submission.

(I wonder if I am in some way breaking copyright by reproducing it here. Probably not but one can never be too sure!)

Introduction

This submission is written by a lay person with no great legal knowledge and no commercial stake in the copyright industry. As such this is more of a brain dump than a well-crafted position paper. Therefore, it may be entirely outside of the scope of the terms of reference of this review or the issues may be covered by other reviews or by existing legislation. Apologies to the committee if this is the case.

A note on the Scope of the Review

I note that the Terms of Reference that have been given to the Committee are somewhat narrow in that you should investigate the balance between protecting creativity and enabling innovation. It is a shame that at no point in the Terms of Reference does the Minister mention the common good as a force that needs consideration in this equation. Both creativity and innovation have become, by and large, the preserve of corporate entities rather than individuals. A review of legislation by the government of the people that focuses substantially on corporate interests rather than how the legislation can be improved for all of society is to be regretted.

Rationale for Copyright

The basis of copyright is a noble one – creative people should have their work protected so they can exploit it as they see fit and that a legal framework exists through which to seek redress if their work is unfairly used. This provides obvious benefits to the creator. Society’s benefit comes at the end of the restricted period when the work enters the public domain and all are able to use the work.

Unfortunately, due to the strong lobbying efforts of the copyright industry, often quite separate from the creative individuals, the balance between creator and society has now tilted massively against the public good. How a creator can expect to be able to exploit a work 69 years after their death is beyond me. I would suggest that this period of time be substantially reduced, preferably to a fixed period, perhaps matching that of patents.

Protectionism versus Innovation

I attended the public meeting of the Committee on 4th July in TCD and was somewhat shocked by the protectionist positions being taken up by many contributors from the audience. Legislation should not be used to protect an established industry from innovation. Canal owners and operators attempted to put huge restrictions on the use of rail in the early 19th Century much to the detriment of the public good. Similarly, the committee must not allow the vested interests of the copyright industry to stifle innovation just for their benefit. Time and technology move on and the copyright industry must adapt or die. They must not be allowed hide behind legal protections that are either outdated or ill-suited to the modern world.

Format Shifting and Time Shifting

When I purchase a CD in a bricks and mortar store I am unclear as to what it is that I am actually purchasing. Obviously I don’t own the music – the band (or record label more likely) still own that. So I must in some sense be licensing the music. But to the normal punter the terms of this license are unclear. Is this license transferable? Is it perpetual? Is it revocable? Any update to the copyright provisions should allow me, the end user of media that I have licensed, to use that media as I see fit for my own personal use. This should include format shifting – the converting from CD to MP3/OGG or other format for use on computers and media players such as iPods.

Provision should also be made for the practice of time shifting, the art of home taping of broadcast material that has been ongoing since the widespread adoption of VHS in the 80s. In fact, most modern digital TV services (Sky, NTL) provide this service already either through hard-disk recoding of the programme as it is broadcast or “on demand” services. Again, I the end user, should not be committing an offence by using these systems, or by transferring a recording to another device such as my laptop for viewing at a different time and/or location.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Norris' Nomination

People are getting all up in arms about David Norris not getting a nomination to run for President. I just don't get it. He'll have no problem landing himself on the ballot paper through his friends and acquaintances in Leinster House.

This is the pool he is fishing in.
  • 3 - TCD Senators (Norris, Bacik, Barrett)
  • 3 - NUI Senators (Quinn, Mullen, Crown)
  • 7 - Endapendents (Coghlan, Mac Conghail, McAleese, O'Brien, O'Donnell, Van Turnhout, Zappone)
  • 12 - Dáil Independents (all except Lowry and Healy-Rae)
  • 5 - ULA TDs (Boyd Barrett, Collins, Daly, Higgins, Healy)

That makes 30 by my count. If Sinn Féin decide not to contest the election then its even easier as their 17 Oireachtas members can be called into action. And if the worst comes to the worst I can easily see Micheál Martin sending a few of the least offensive members of his parliamentary party off to sign the papers. The spin will be that Fianna Fáil are not endorsing his candidacy, just enabling democracy. The irony is not lost after FF's steadfast refusal to hold by-elections in the previous Dáil.

The touring of the country to collect Council nominations is a PR move to keep his name and campaign in the spotlight. That makes it a good move, but give over with the crocodile tears when nasty, bigoted, homophobic councils don't vote to nominate him or refuse to entertain the roadshow.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thoughts on Roscommon Hospital

Much has been made in recent days about James Reilly's plans to close down the A&E service in Roscommon Hospital. He claims that the unit is unsafe and that patients are at more risk by being treated there than by traveling to Galway, Longford or Castlebar. This resulted in FG TD Denis Naughten losing the whip after voting against the government on the issue.

In my mind there are two major issues at play here. Firstly there is the conflict between the rationalization of services to provide economies of scale and the requirement for geographical spread of services to ensure no patient is too far from acute services. Secondly there is the political issue of promising rainbows and unicorns before an election and then not being able to deliver.

There are studies that show quite clearly that the further away from an A&E a patient becomes ill, the more likely the outcome will be bad. Therefore it makes sense to try and dot hospitals around the country in strategic locations so that people are not too far from help. In the current situation, closing Roscommon may lead to people driving to Galway for assistance. Having driven that road only a few months ago in some pretty heavy rain I can assure you that it is not something that you would like to do with a sick child or heart attack victim in the back seat. Double that length of time if you have to call out an ambulance and you can suddenly see why the people of Roscommon are up in arms about keeping the hospital open.

However, the flip side is that an A&E that doesn't see many patients will not have the experience and practice at dealing with serious problems. The figures speak for themselves in the Roscommon case where mortality rate was over three times higher in Roscommon than in Galway. In an ideal world, every city and town would have top class health (and education and transport and ...) infrastructure and services. But it doesn't work that way. There is a finite pot of resources and it can only make sense to invest heavily in areas that will provide the maximum return - ie where the population catchment area is sufficiently large.

People have to live with the choices they make. If you choose to live in a lightly populated area you can't expect the same level of services as those who live nearer each other. Density is king, and when you compare Dublin at nearly 1400 people per km^2 and Roscommon at 25 per km^2 you may begin to see where the problem comes from. I've been called on my urban bias before and accused of not understanding the rural way of life. And yes, maybe it's true. But you make choices in life and one of those choices is where you live. Living in Dublin 5, I can't have an expectation of waking to mooing cows and fields of corn outside my window. Likewise, if I lived in a rural area I couldn't have an expectation of rapid public transport, high-tech hospitals and third level education on my doorstep.

Politically it is also true - people have to live with the TDs they elect. The TD also has to live with the electorate and should stand by positions held in the run up to the election. That is why I have some grudging respect for Denis Naughten. It will be interesting to see ho long he remains outside the whip and if he will vote against the government on any other issues. It is not good enough for TDs to say the people have spoken and elected them to the Dáil if the premise on which they were elected is false. In any other sphere that would be a breach of contract and render the whole relationship void. Pity our politicians can't be held to account in that way.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Taking a break

I've decided to take a bit of a break from blogging. The last 6 months have been fairly hectic what with the general election and then my own shenanigans with the Seanad election. I've partially burned out on politics and so need to charge up the batteries again. Luckily I'm off on holidays for a few weeks soon which should get me back in the zone. We'll pick up at some point during the silly season.

Just a few minor thoughts on recent topics before I go.

David Norris

The current smear campaign being waged against David Norris is disgusting. When people like John Waters and David Quinn come out supporting the attacks it only makes me more sure that it is a load of dirty tricks. While I will be voting for Michael D Higgins in the Presidential election I am now more certain than ever that Norris will be getting my number 2.

We the Citizens

I went to the We the Citizens event on Wednesday night in Tallaght. While skeptical about anything of great import coming from the events it was good to have a round table discussion with a group of strangers. The event was well organized with a facilitator at each table to keep the conversation on track and make sure it wasn't dominated by a few loud voices.

One thing I think has worked in their favour is the timing. Initially they had hoped to report before the general election in early 2012 but obviously that didn't come to pass. However, with the election there was a sense of the air being cleared and we didn't spend hours giving out about Cowen, Lenihan and the banks. A lot more positive and constructive than it might have been on the original timetable.

Tweet Up

The politics twonks also held a tweetup last Thursday night. As usual, great fun was had debating the ills of the country. It was a bit weird not being on the offensive against the government. Was also nice to meet a few new people as well as the old regulars and there are plans to hold another session towards the end of the summer.

Ignite

On Wednesday this week I'll be giving a talk at the Ignite Dublin session being held in the Science Gallery. These talks are on any topic, last for 5 minutes and have 20 slides that advance every 15 seconds. Considering my lecture overheads normally proceed at the rate of one every 5-8 minutes this is quite a challenge. I have about 10 of the slides done but amn't sure what else to cover. If all else fails I can always repeat! Oh, and the title of my talk is something like "How to (un)successfully run a Seanad election campaign on no money and even less planning" so it is somewhat politically focused.

Water Charges

Phil Hogan has put water charges firmly back on the agenda. As usual Nama Wine Lake were well ahead of the curve with their fairytale. But it is true that water charges, like most consumption and flat taxes, are regressive and in this case particularly expensive to gear up for. Another sop to the building industry?

JLCs

The other major bit of right-wing kite flying being done by the blue side of the coalition is the carry-on by Richard Bruton with the JLCs. Again the work has been done Michael Taft and others on the figures but attacking, yet again, those on extremely low levels of pay is daft. All it does is further reduce domestic demand which has a knock on effect of laying off even more people who's jobs are on the minimum wage or a rate agreed in a JLC. People at the bottom spend to survive - reducing their disposable income just continues the cycle of depression and cuts.


Think that's about it. See you all in a little while. I'll still be hanging out on Twitter if you need to find me.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Enda vs Chuck

One of my guilty pleasures is watching the TV show Chuck. In the show, the main protagonist Chuck, a mild mannered tech support minion, becomes a prized NSA/CIA asset who fights international terrorism while still being home in time to play Halo and eat pizza with his best buddy Morgan. But the thing of interest to us is that every episode is called "Chuck vs the Something". I want to take a look at Enda Kenny and the things he is trying to tackle and see how they stack up.

Enda vs the EU/IMF

Election promises from both government parties were all about making bondholders pay, renegotiating the bailout interest rate and the infamous "Frankfort's way or Labour's way" statement from Eamon Gilmore. Since taking the reins, Enda has had a couple of meetings with the various EU and IMF representative but it looks like nothing has changed. The draft MOU that was published a few weeks ago is pretty much identical to the one that would have been expected from FF had they stayed in power. We're still tied to the high rates and the bondmarket is still well north of 10%.

Enda vs the Seanad

Another of the major election promises was political reform, spearheaded by the abolition of the Seanad. Now I've written at length about this topic so no need to rehash the arguments here. Now it looks as though it will be at least another year or two before any referendum is brought before the people to abolish the Seanad. I guess it has turned out to be a bit more complicated than Enda originally thought. He has also taken full advantage of is nominating powers to put some interesting people into the Seanad including Eamon Coughlan and Aideen Hayden, but really, did he have to stick Marie Louise O'Donnell in there? Maybe she's going to fill the Eoghan Harris role in the new Seanad line-up.

Enda vs the Separation of Powers

Speaking of nominations to the Seanad another interesting one is Martin McAleese, husband of the President. While I am sure that he will be a fine contributor to the Seanad, it does see to fly in the face of the concept of separation of powers. Surely the Presidency should be completely independent of the Oireachtas? The other odd decision of this type was the decision to merge the Departments of Defence and Justice under the one person. Again, while it is unlikely that there will be an armed coup any time soon in Ireland, I think that the principle of separating control of the two security forces of the state is not one that should be thrown away lightly.

Enda vs the Speech Writers

Finally there's The Speech. While watching Obama's introduction on Monday evening, it struck me that the turn of phrase in Enda's speech was quite good, even if it was delivered in a bit of an All Ireland winning captain's speech style. "Tá an athás orm an Obama seo a glacadh ar son foireann na hÉireann." Only when I noticed Obama busting himself laughing behind Enda that I twigged where the lines were coming from. I have to say I thought it was a great idea to recycle the victory night speech into an introduction and I don't believe for one minute that Enda didn't know what he, or his writer, had done. Good man for having the balls to follow through with it.

I may come back to this list a some point in the future. I kinda like the format!