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


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!)


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.