Thursday, January 8, 2015

What do we want from health care?

I sometimes catch myself feeling nostalgic about the Progressive Democrats. This is not an ideological pining. It's more akin to missing the 'good old days' when Liverpool always won or when petrol cost half what it costs now or even when I used to drink vodka. It is an emotional attachment. The PDs were formed when I was about 11 and I identified with them from the night I saw them on the news. 

Nostalgia and sentimentality are not wholly useless pastimes. While I welcomed the PDs destruction, due to their gross errors while in government, my occasional unguarded feelings towards the party, does allow me a certain empathy for those who stick with parties that disappoint them. Understanding, but not sympathy. Misplaced loyalty should be understood so it can be overcome. 

One of the key failures of the PD administration was in Health. I had high hopes when Mary Harney took over that department. She was clearly smarter than most of her colleagues and more importantly, wasn't in thrall to parish pump politics. 

She was hamstrung from the beginning by having to take on the HSE. The HSE was a good idea in principle, but was horribly bloated from day one, due to Michael Martin conniving with the public sector unions. 

Expenditure on health mushroomed under Harney, but there was no serious reform. The Centres of Excellence, were a good idea, but Harney left few improvements behind her. 

What I find most disappointing about that, was during the Bubble, there was time and money to have a conversation about health care in Ireland. A conversation not necessarily ideological laden. Yes the PDs were a free market party, but their partners, Fianna Fáil were never what one would call ideological and certainly the Opposition represented all ideologies and none. 

A conversation about what we want and how best to achieve it. (Though of course this is my blog post, so it will be about what I want and how I think it can be best achieved)

Obviously, as a former PD and current member of Fine Gael I must be a fan of capitalism. Guilty as charged. I am a capitalist. I think a free and open market can be the least bad option for achieving prosperity, or at least for finding the resources for funding that prosperity. I also happen to think that the State is the least bad option for ensuring that this prosperity reaches as many people as possible. To some that may appear to be a contradiction. I don't agree. I am neither a libertarian or a socialist. I wish to live in a state with a carefully calibrated balance between my freedoms as an individual and the state's power to ensure my freedom is not merely the freedom to starve to death or die for a want of some antibiotics. 

So, what do I want from health care?

First, I do not embrace any philosophical obligation to help my fellow man. Intellectually, I regard myself as free to step over a sick person on the street, as I am free to pretend not notice all the homeless people I saw in Dublin last week. 

That being said, humans are a social animal. We have evolved empathy. Not noticing those homeless people took a toll. I cannot see a homeless person without selfishly listing off to myself all the disasters I would need to encounter before I too would end up on the streets. My privilege is having so many supports in place, that me sleeping on a street would require several and improbable calamities occurring simultaneously. 

(How to deal with homelessness eludes me, though I am less than impressed with this government's efforts thus far)

Health however, or more accurately ill health, cannot be dealt with by merely having a wide circle of friends and family. It requires expensive expertise. And it can visit anyone at anytime. 

I wouldn't step over that sick person because my basic humanity would stop me, but also my primeval self-interest would kick in. I would not want to live somewhere where I would be stepped over. It is bad enough having to inure myself to the shivering bodies sheltering in doorways. 

Nor would I wish to have to worry about money. Not that an emergency case would have to produce a credit card before getting onto an ambulance. More that, I would prefer to live in a country where a poor person has the exact same access to medical care as a rich person, both in quality and timing. This isn't altruism. I had to give up my Medical Insurance last year and it makes me feel vulnerable.    

I want everyone to have access, because I want access. And I think most people would agree with that, in principle. That's my stall set out. I want everyone to have the best available care, because I want me and mine to have the best, even though I can't afford it. 

Now if we could achieve a broad consensus on that, we might think we've done a good day's work. The problem is paying for it. Not that I'm underplaying the importance of establishing the principle of everyone having access to the best health care available. There will be ideologues and 'pragmatists' who'll rail against it. And others who would divide people into 'deserving' and 'undeserving' sick. They would have to be wholly defeated. A prisoner serving life for murder must be entitled to the same care as a child with cancer. If we get to play favourites, then it's not really a principle, more a guideline. Give people the power to play god and they will play god. And if they are corrupt, which some of them inevitably will be, then money will again decide who gets what and when. 

But cost must then be addressed. And when deciding how best to meet the cost, one must also look at methodology. This is where the ideologues will run amok. I don't care how it's done, though mostly I don't care because I don't how it can be done. If research showed that a model based on the NHS, entirely funded by taxes, was the best, I'd go for that. If research showed a wholly privatised system worked the best, I'd go for that. I have no problem with profit. I'm a carer by profession. I get paid and would not work for free. I'm also not a big fan of paying taxes, but if the State did it best, then I'd pay the extra taxes. 

Unfortunately, all I see at the moment is confusion, inefficiency, a lack of resources and a crippling lack of vision. 

Perhaps we could first decide what it is we want. Let's achieve that one thing in health care, let's identify our ambition for health care in this country, then perhaps deciding how to reach that goal won't seem so crisis led and chaotic. 

The privilege of free speech.

I'm still trying to process yesterday's massacre. It's difficult to put considered words to my emotions. Usually one wouldn't have to be considered. When something as awful as the murder of 12 people happens one shouldn't have to watch what one says. But when a few extremists, from a minority, perpetrate an outrage, the responsible thing to do is moderate one's reaction.  

Muslims are in a vulnerable position in Europe. In an ideal world, these newcomers would be seeking to fit in, rather than to blend in. Part of fitting in, rather than blending in, is looking different. Be it because of skin colour or religious dress, European Muslims do generally stand out. This difference is extenuated by Muslims not feeling obliged to forget who they are, just to make us natives feel more comfortable with change. I like that. 

Unfortunately not everyone does. Even in the best of times there are those whose identities are so fragile or malformed that difference and change feels threatening. It's a phenomenon that's made worse in times of economic strife. Europe has obviously been experiencing an economic crisis so the backlash is getting better organised and most worryingly, better dressed. 

It becomes more complex when religion is conflated with race. It gets yet more complex when a liberal wants to criticise Islam and finds that the far-right is making similar criticisms and the far-left is acting as an apologist for religious extremism.      

So how do I emote responsibly? How do I give words to this fear and rage without descending into the language of hate?

I didn't feel like this when Anders Breivik murdered dozens of children. Of course there no one suggested that those children shouldn't have provoked a deranged extremist by being members of Norway's Labour Party. He represented such an insignificant strand of psychotic extremism that I did not feel threatened by his actions. Nor did I have to hedge my condemnation, for he was white and Christian.     

I want to be free to attack Islam. I regard it as being as ludicrous a lifestyle choice as Roman Catholicism, but how do I ridicule and other it, without using words that an Anders Breivik would nod approvingly at? 

How do I point out the supernatural nonsense, the homophobia and the misogyny? When I criticise Roman Catholicism, no one in Ireland will be worried about their churches being attached, job opportunities lost, their citizenship being withdrawn or their children attacked on the streets. It's easy being a liberal in Ireland with a bone to pick with the Catholics. 

Having a go at a minority, sets off, or should set off, alarm bells in the mind of a liberal. Yes, I could say, but they attacked free speech. They attacked a value as dear to me, as many people hold religion to themselves.  

The problem is that I don't live in a country that takes free speech seriously. I live in a country with blasphemy laws and that bans atheists from certain high offices. What right do I have to feel so offended by an attack on free speech in France, when a satirical cartoon, in an Irish newspaper, depicting Roman Catholic Priests was pulled due to the 'offence' some Roman Catholics chose to take? 

Should I wait for Ireland to get its house in order before commenting on religious attacks on free speech in other countries? It's an argument that can be made. 

I think I feel defeated. How do I, with every privilege, being born a straight, white man, in Western Europe has gifted me, argue the case for untrammelled free speech? How do I make the case to a gay adult, who has survived all the bigotry this country has thrown at them, that the next generation of gay people must also endure the witless homophobia of the Roman Catholic Church? 

I can attempt to explain that if we empower the State to silence Catholic bigotry, we've then empowered the State to ban gay 'propaganda' as Russia has done. I can attempt to say that the responsibility of people, of good conscious, is to drown out the noise of institutional bigotry. That we must argue for and model behaviour that inspires minorities, that so inculcates them from the hate, that the words and deeds of the tiny minded, becomes wholly irrelevant. I have to argue that free speech is worth suffering for?

Saying those things makes me feel like I am a middle aged man in 1914, urging and cheering the young men off the war, safe in the knowledge that I will never be called upon to suffer their fate. 

Do I condemn the cowardice of the Irish mainstream media for not printing any of the cartoons that so offended the extremists? I wouldn't be the one courting a violent death. 

I had hoped that writing this would help me process my feelings and give me a renewed sense of purpose. But it hasn't. I'm left with the feeling that expending any time, effort or passion on an ideal such as free speech, is merely to display my privilege in garish colours. 

Perhaps that's the point. Free speech does remain a privilege. A privilege, but not a priority? 

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Battle of the Five Armies (spoilerful review)

I chose to wait until I'd seen the movie twice before reviewing it. I'm glad I did as the review I'd have written after the first view would have been unremittingly negative. It's not that I thought it a bad film, it's that the entire experience was ruined by one early scene. Watching it a second time however allowed me to enjoy a great deal of the rest of it. 

(And as I warned at the beginning, this is spoiler heavy)

I shall begin with the issue many people have referred to since The Hobbit project became a trilogy. Was a trilogy justified and did the three films succeed in dealing with any concerns expressed? I must admit to being unsure. I do not posses the ability to step outside my enduring love for Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth. I would have gladly, enthusiastically and without hesitation embraced a ten film version of The Hobbit. Similarly I'd have been overjoyed with a twenty film version of The Lord of the Rings. So I cannot offer a sensible appraisal of this trilogy's merit. 

I can suggest that Peter Jackson did succeed where Tolkien failed, turning The Hobbit into a fully fleshed out prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Though, it should never be forgotten, the good professor did provide all the necessary details for Jackson and his writing team to make that adaptation. So yes, it does work as a prequel in a way the original book did not (and was not initially meant to be). 

But three films? This review can't offer an answer. I would suggest however, that despite its mighty length, there were still pieces of the story that did not get resolved or were not given due attention eg the Arkenstone, Beorn, Gollum, the white jewels, Legolas's mother, Thorin's funeral and sundry other elements. All I know for certain is that I want more. 

Another often mentioned controversy is Tauriel, a wholly invented Jackson character. Was she created just because a Hollywood Blockbuster needs a strong female character? I don't care why she appeared, I just know I love her. From my earliest readings of the books, I was always struck by the power of the female characters in Middle Earth. They did not appear very often, but they had a wonderfully pervasive presence. Galadriel, Arwen and Éowyn are characters I adore. Tauriel is a worthy addition to that triumvirate. 

I'm also an incurable romantic. I thought her always doomed relationship with Kili was beautiful. That it was transgressive only added to the romantic beauty of it all. And it was doomed. Tauriel did not have the option of choosing mortality as Arwen did, lacking her dual-heritage. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Thranduil reminds her that Kili will surely one day die. Who couldn't be transported back to the time Elrond showed Arwen a vision of her future if she chose a mortal, Aragorn. An eternity of aimless grief. I'm a sucker for that kind of tragedy so Tuariel's inclusion most certainly works for me. 

As for The Battle of Five Armies itself? It did not have the emotional resonance of The Return of the King, which logically it could not have, being part three of six. But I still felt the disappointment as this is simultaneously, part six of six. A seventh may never be made. Though it is a strange criticism to make, make a film that'll keep me going for the next few decades.

Before I continue I should explain what scene almost ruined the entire film for me. The confrontation on Dol Guldur between Galadriel and Sauron and the Nazgûl just didn't make sense. At first Galadriel appears scared of the Nazgûl then she dismisses all nine and Sauron with seeming ease. It's a scene that manages to both understate and overstate her power, with added rubbish special effects to boot. We know that Sauron was defeated at Dol Goldur and that Galadriel was the most powerful elf in Middle Earth, but surely there was a way of telling that story better. It continues to irk me in a way that no other scene in the six films ever has. 

But that aside. I enjoyed it. The opening scene was near perfect. Though it worries how much regret I felt, when Smaug's light was finally extinguished. I never felt that for the Balrog. 

I was convinced by Thorin's descent into paranoid madness and teary eyed by his eventual redemption. 

Bard's assumption of power was admirable. Thranduil's lofty coldness, softened, was wonderful. The battle scenes were spectacular, if a little confusing. How Azog managed to establish his command post still escapes me. (I won't mention the rock worms) I enjoyed the fact that while dwarves hate elves, they will at least treat with them, but show them an overwhelming force of orcs and they will charge them without pause for breath. I'd liked to have seen more of the Charge of the Women and again with the Eagles without any explanation. If I hadn't read the books, I think I'd have lost my mind with the Eagles.    

I really enjoyed the way the deaths of Kili and Fili were handled. The former without any heroism, the latter, his eyes trained on his love while he breathed his last. 

Legolas got to do his circus tricks. You're either going to love or hate that.   

But in the end, The Hobbit is about Bilbo and I think he shone. He is a true adventurer. Bilbo has a charisma that Frodo never had. Be it dwarf, elf or man, Bilbo is always a force to be reckoned with. He has none of Frodo's deference. And that he was already in thrall to the ring by the film's end was made exquisitely apparent. 

And now, the only thing left to do is wait for the extended version. And after that, back to the books and pray to Eru that the rights to The Silmarillion become available. 

May the Star of Eärendil shine upon you. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014


Gandalf knows I've little interest in competitive 1916ing. I would avoid the sport altogether, except it does provide an opportunity for a little thought experiment. Imagine a class of 35 teenagers is asked to write a short essay about what it means to them, to be Irish. That is 35 individual perspectives on Irish identity.  

Now before you read the essays, ask yourself the following questions; if you disagree with an opinion, does that mean the teenager is wrong? How much uniformity do you hope to see in the essays? Will the essays be much different to what would've been written ten years or fifty years ago? If different, is this a good or a bad thing? Will you value the opinions of the new Irish as much as the old Irish? Do you think you'll be able to detect differences based on gender, income, sexuality, race and religion? Do you think this class of teenagers would write the same thing in ten or fifty years from now?

What I'd hope this experiment would successfully demonstrate, is the fluidity of Irish identity. I would also like to think (and I'm open to contradiction here) is that there is now greater variation in today's multitude of Irish identities than there has ever been since the foundation of the State.

I happen to think that's a positive development. I remember when I was in school, we were taught that one of the causes of The Great Famine was monoculture i.e. an over reliance on one crop. I can't help thinking that the dreary sameness of Irish culture up to quite recently, had a part in producing a State seemingly incapable of dealing with crises or indeed difference.  

That's possibly why I react so negatively to 1916ing. I keep hearing so many different people insisting that their 1916 is the most authentic and that all you other 1916s are revisionist, reactionary, counter revolutionary, and not the right sort of patriot. And if you even question the motives of the 1916ers themselves, well then you're clearly a West Brit hankering for a return of the Irish Raj. 

It is as if demonstrations of physical bravery sanctify actions however misguided. This deathly piety, infects and animates both left and right with equal vigour. Will those who died in the crossfire of this 'idealism' be remembered? Will those who were maimed in a cause they did not support be afforded equal respect? Of course not. All that matters is that we wave the flag and insist 1916 means such and such a thing. 

What the fuck, you may be asking, has this got to do with secularism? Well let me explain. Traditionally, when an Irish atheist speaks about secularism, we tend to simply attack the Roman Catholic Church. It's almost a reflex at this point. Any and all demonstrations of Catholicism provokes us. We use terms like 'sky wizard' and 'flat earthers' and 'Bronze Age inspired homophobes' (ok I just made that last one up, but you get the picture).

Has this ever proven useful? I fear it hasn't. It inspires a defensiveness we've never really been able to overcome. And when we resort to seemingly neutral terms like 'rights' 'equality' 'pluralism' and the 'UN' we very much meet the same reaction; this is a Catholic country and if you were in Saudi Arabia you'd know your place. 

This failure, no our failure, was brought home to me by a recent incident in my own county of Kerry. 

A cross at the top of Kerry's Mount Carrauntoohil, was vandalised, cut down by someone who climbed the mountain with an angle grinder. Now my first reaction was, there's a cross at the top of Carrauntoohil? Followed by a shudder, then the thought, is there any where in this country free from these Catholic symbols?

Then something unpleasant occurred to me. What if this was one of our lot? And I use 'our lot' in the broadest sense, meaning anyone who might have been motivated by secularism, atheism or anything similar. I prayed to the gods I don't think exist, that this would prove to be a work of pure vandalism or even perhaps a rather energetic environmentalist. Gandalf knows we could do with more environmentalists in Kerry. 

I'm ashamed to admit, that I even momentarily hoped it was of one the many victims of the Irish Catholic Church, exacting some revenge. An unworthy thought. Being president is just not that important. 

Soon after this, representatives of Atheist Ireland were interviewed on local and national radio stations. As a member for that organisation I was hoping they'd see the danger and opportunity this incident represented. I was sadly and emphatically disappointed. 

No sympathy for the communities, who'd erected the cross, was offered. And worse, its restoration was questioned. I was appalled, still am. I engaged with Michael Nugent on Twitter, but I failed to make him realise how badly Atheist Ireland's response reflected on us all. Worse, it now makes the removal of the crucifix in the Kerry County Council Chambers even less likely. The only response from Atheist Ireland should've been, 'this is terrible and how may we help?' 

The cross was put back up, in an almost secret operation, such were the fears of the local communities. Think on that. What hope does a secularist now have in engaging fruitfully with those people? They are actually scared of an organisation with next to no influence and even less power. 

(As it happens, the vandal did turn out to have a gripe with the Catholic Church)

I let my membership of Atheist Ireland lapse. Its clueless and tone deaf behaviour shocked me too much to have anything else to do with it. 

Thing is though, I still support its stated aims of promoting atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state.  

I don't actually wish to spread atheism, but I want everyone to be as familiar with it as they are the various Christian sects, Islamic traditions, Eastern philosophies, weird American cults, astrology and paganism. Which is to say, I'd like Irish people to be as equally ignorant of the several tensions that exist as atheism, as they are the about the divisions, contradictions and rivalries that exist within all the other groups. I want this for one reason and one reason only, so that we can make some progress in creating a truly secular state. 

Why? Why this need for secularism? And where does having a go at the current fashion for 1916ing come into it? Be patient, I'm getting there. 

Secularism is derided by both left and right as being innately conservative and far too radical. If the Marxists and reactionaries hate you, then you're probably doing something right. The thing is, both are entirely correct. 

Yes the cause of secularism is profoundly conservative. Look at us. We are almost exclusively white men, living comfortable lives. I am not fit to wash the feet of a secularist living in Saudi Arabia. I'd blush in the presence of a Russian secularist. And I'd be tongue tied if I met a woman secularist. In Catholic Ireland I must labour under the yoke of not being allowed be President, a judge or a member of The Council of State. Imagine my rallying call; come all, join me in my fight to have the theoretical right to a pointless, but well paid, office. Help, help, I'm being repressed. 

And yet, the cause of secularism is profoundly radical. For there can be nothing sacred in a secular state. Not the right to have one's opinions respected. Not the right to cut a small child's genitals. Not the right to impose one's beliefs. And never a right to state sanctioned privilege. 

Those of us who identify as non-religious are a disparate lot. That which is the non-religious part of our identities, contributes to our Irish identities. To some, this is a defining feature, for others, it is but a tiny aspect of the over all. But we are about 250,000 of the population. That's a big chunk of people. 

On the other hand (as opposed to other side) there are the 'still' millions who identify as Roman Catholic. This group is as disparate as the many contradictions found among the non-religious. And again, in varying degrees, these multitudinous identities, influence their Irish identities. 

That these identities are privileged is inarguable. That they represent the vast majority of identities, is without question. And that they have the weight of tradition and history behind them, is clear to all. 

They are as entitled to the respect as this 'militant' atheist wishes he was afforded. But for secularism to succeed they will need to change, they will need to cede some of their power, they will need to accept uncomfortably new modes of behaviour. Their perception of Irish identity will need to broaden, in some cases, considerably. 

But if they ask why they should change? Why should they give up anything? Why can't things just stay the same? 

Do I answer with, your God is a sham, I want to be president (in theory), the UN said so, in fact comparing ourselves to Saudi Arabia demonstrates such low national self-esteem you should probably seek help or because you're just being mean not giving me my own way?   

Thing is, there is no right answer. There is no silver bullet for convincing someone that the way things have been done for a century is discriminatory and worse, self defeating. Convincing someone of something, who doesn't want to be convinced, is an exercise is such futility that one must grope for Greek legends for an appropriate metaphor. 

And when that attempt is made with clumsy insensitivity, then that rock gets heavier and the hill steeper.    

But is this a call for surrender? No. Far from it. Nor am I suggesting, hinting or even hoping that secularism is in anyway a natural progression and we need merely sit back and watch it grow.

Even in this time of competitive 1916ing and all the atavist nonsense that it entails, it is clear that Ireland has changed and is continuing to change. While people will (in these few nostalgic riven years) speak about the Irish character and Irish identity, the days of everyone following the flag, step in step (if indeed that ever existed) is long gone. 

There is now, no Irish identity. And if anyone tells you there is, they probably trying to sell you something. There are many identities, many cultures, many ways at looking at the world and now, several opportunities for minorities to assert their claim to equal treatment and esteem. 

And yes, that implies I am putting the non-religious into the category of oppressed minority. And yes, I am. But quell your ire, for this is the key point I am struggling to make in this overly long post. There is a queue of minorities, all standing and waiting or marching and demanding equality. All looking for their threads in the tapestry of Irishness to be recognised. The non-religious absolutely belong in that queue, but near the back. And while standing and waiting (occasionally raising our hands to remind people we are here) our main focus should be in supporting those people ahead of us is the queue. Because if and when we're the only ones left, we won't even have to ask anymore. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Democratic Revoluton?

It's difficult to write about this government without slipping into either apologetics or rage. It seems that there are the 25% who still support them and the rest of country hating them. In a time of crisis, a government unites those it governs in support of it, or it unites the opposition. Peculiarly, in this instance, the Fine Gael-Labour government has stumbled onto a third option. We are in an era where no political party or political figure can command respect outside their own particular base. Can anyone remember a government as unpopular as this one, facing such a splintered and ineffectual opposition? Where is the 'government in waiting?'  

Why is this the case? I touched on some of the themes in my previous blog post, but there is more to this, much more. Enda Kenny promised a 'democratic revolution' on becoming Taoiseach. A worthy goal, but has he reneged on that revolution or has he merely met the immovable object of overwhelming legacy?

To understand his failure, a failure that seems to have harmed more than just his own party, we must try to understand what a 'democratic revolution' might look like. 

We should begin by looking at our parliamentary democracy. It has proven surprisingly durable. Despite never getting the hang of running a consistently strong economy, or ending emigration or ridding the country of armed atavists, we never succumbed to the antidemocratic movements that have swept Europe at various times over the last century. Not that we should pat ourselves on the back and leave as is. 

In the era when Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil dominated the political firmament, we, by default, had governments of consensus. The gap between these two parties on the economy and on social issues was so narrow, that when one governed they could treat the other with contempt. It was safe to do so, as one would never move very far from the other. Today that dominance is broken. Ireland has changed. Not as radically as some believe or would wish, but certainly changed. A government can now be elected, which might be entirely different in values and priorities than much of the opposition. 

This raises a crucial point about our electoral system. Are we satisfied with simple majoritism or do we think a search for consensus is preferable? There is no right or wrong answer to this. Many people see elections as simple exercises in winner takes all democracy and think it a pure and righteous thing. I happen to disagree with that quite strongly. 

I think elections are certainly to be won, but governing should include more than empty rhetoric about being a government of all the people. Governing should include everyone who was elected, wherever they happen to sit in the House.  

At present we have a very inefficient system of democracy. We elect 166 TDs to the Dáil and then add 60 members to the Seanad. That's 226 men and women who've been deemed worthy to govern and legislate. 

What happens the day after an election? Just under half those TDs are discounted as they are not in government. Of the 83 plus TDs who did 'win?' All but 14 or so are immediately relegated to being mere voting fodder. All power is vested in the Cabinet. And of those in the Cabinet, all but the Taoiseach and Tánaiste are appointed with favours given and future elections in mind. All at the behest of the party leaders who themselves are merely seat holders, like everyone else in the Dáil.     

(A quick aside regarding the Seanad. I would prefer it was abolished. That it wasn't, speaks to the mistrust voters have for politicians in general and government TDs in particular. I see no useful function for the Seanad. Ireland has a tiny population and more than enough people in the Dáil.)

So, back to the Dáil. We have somehow managed to create an almost presidential system, despite being a parliamentary democracy. I have heard it argued that the Irish character prefers a strong leader, an elected king. I've heard the Russians described similarly and look at what's being inflicted on them. We can look at the barely functioning democracy that is the USA. Imagine vesting so much power and almost religious respect in a figure, half the nation despises. Imagine a Haughey not needing to look over his shoulder for four uninterrupted years.  

I dislike the implications of a powerful executive. Now I admit that may be a personality trait. What was my relationship with my father like etc. But I invite you to consider this, who would you trust to 'lead' the nation, who couldn't be removed from office and didn't have to worry too much about keeping his or her own party, the opposition or the people, onside? It makes me shudder. 

Unfortunately, our parliamentary elections have begun to resemble presidential elections. The party leaders vie for the position of Taoiseach. The reality however is that no one has the power to vote for a Taoiseach except the 166 men and women elected to the Dáil. I'm consistently amazed by the number of people I encounter who do not realise this or who certainly act as if they don't know.

Enda Kenny won a Dáil seat just like every other TD. He was elected Taoiseach by those TDs. Yes, he's the leader of Fine Gael and the head of government, but he was never picked as the leader of the country. Now I happen to like Enda as the leader of Fine Gael. He has obviously achieved much in that position. He's the kind of leader I'd always choose. He's the kind of inspiring figure I wouldn't even follow out of a burning building.  

The problem is, he and the Labour leader du jour have sidelined the Dáil. I don't think this is motivated by some megalomaniac impulse. More, that these few individuals appear to place their opinion of what is required to solve the Fianna Fáil economic crisis, above the requirements and restrictions of a parliamentary democracy. Not withstanding the sickening populism and mad need of all TDs to win re-election that pervades the Dáil, the Dáil is the seat of all democratic power in Ireland, well at at least in theory anyway. 

Yes, Fine Gael and Labour have very fixed ideas about how best to solve this country's problems. Ideas that may be anathema to many in the opposition. Yes the opposition is made of apologists for murder. Yes the very people who destroyed the country are crying foul. Yes there are those who wish to abolish capitalism. Some who want hospitals built at every crossroad in the country. And then there are those who see Ireland as made up of 43 semi-independent kingdoms and say fuck the other 42.   

Each and every one of them, freely and democratically elected to the assembly charged with governing this nation. The entire point of having so many elected members, in a system with a figurehead executive, is that power is shared among as many people, ideologies, opinions, prejudices, abilities and personalities as possible. 

And again, when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represented all but a tiny few aspects of the Irish electorate, the Dáil wasn't a necessary brake on the government. To paraphrase Eamon de Valera, parliamentarians could indeed see the hope and aspirations of the Irish people in their own hopes and aspirations. (Granted, with the best and brightest emigrating and everyone kowtowing to the bishops, hopes and aspirations were rather limited)

So how do we make a government accountable to the assembly which elects it and how do we strike a balance between consensus and paralysis? I can but offer a few suggestions, while hoping that those who agree with my central thesis have better ideas. 

I would rerun the Committees Referendum, but with wording that guarantees the government of the day cannot abuse it. And on a related point, no Dáil Committee should have a government majority. Neither should the Ceann Comhairle ever come from the government side. 

Further to the Committees, the Budget should be developed and agreed to by a Committee. This is where opposition TDs will have to demonstrate mature parliamentarianism. The Government has to have the right to set the agenda and define priorities. The Committee members must work within that framework in good faith. All TDs will have to get at least some dirt on their fingers, because it is impossible to satisfy all the people, all the time. It's finding that balance between honestly representing one's particular voters while respecting those who voted for an opposing TD. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that our politicians have the ability to accept compromise, to accept that the Dáil is a collective and not an arena. But that is the revolution I think our democracy requires. 

Ireland, fortunately, is less uniform, conforming, white and subservient than it once was. We have become too complicated to have just one or two or even three parties ruling with a weather eye to their base. That means a government must include the opposition and the opposition must respect the mandate of the government. 

This balancing act of inclusion, is not just parliamentary nerdism. Ireland is dealing with two distinct crises. There is the current economic crisis and all the division and strife that is causing. But Ireland is also is suffering a crisis of authority.      

I use the word 'authority' with great reluctance. I intensely dislike much of what that word represents. I once considered myself a Libertarian and while that is my past, it still influences much of my thinking. 

The aspect of authority I am referring to, is the explicit and/or implicit trust we grant to institutions to look after our best interests, fairly and honestly. 

The overarching institution is the State of Ireland itself and its multitude of representative bodies. Separate from these (but not entirely) are the Church, artists, the media, sporting bodies, the wealthy and key professionals like doctors and lawyers.     

Over the last few decades we have discovered that we have been serially betrayed by the several institutions, both State and non-State. This Government has been left to pick up the pieces of that betrayal. To deal with the breath taking failure of their predecessors. The failures of their predecessors to stand up for citizens against the institutions that so abused and neglected them. 

And this government is not doing well in this gargantuan task. I don't even think they feel it's for them to get involved. But it is their job and the job of the Dáil to tackle the very complicated (and yes, potentially very expensive) results of that long term abuse. 

The scary part is just how easy it is to list a dozen or so of the scandals, that are eating away at our faith in this nation. The destruction of our economy and the hopes of so many citizens by the Bankers, the developers and Fianna Fáil is the easiest to remember. But the worst aspect of this example, is that this betrayal leads to the second example; no one responsible has been held to account. That is breeding a cynicism that may never be healed. 

The third example is the state of our police force. It has been found to be consistently incapable of policing itself or sufficiently meeting the needs of those it serves. In response, an insider was appointed to lead the necessary reforms. 

The fourth is the medical care we provide for pregnant women. For years we were told that Ireland was the safest place in the world to be pregnant. Then we discovered those figures were incomplete and that 'ideology' in the place of best practice was costing lives. From denial of cancer treatment, the imposition of symphysiotomies and rank bad practice, the illusion that our maternity hospitals have the best interests of pregnant women at the core of their service, is no more. That the government is not bending over backwards to help these victims is chipping away at the idea that this state exists to benefit its citizens. 

Fifth, is the historical abuse meted out to pregnant women and their babies. Enclaved and locked away, their babies either sold or disposed of in mass graves. While the Roman Catholic Church benefited financially from this criminality, they apparently broke no laws. They were enabled and empowered by the State to deal with the inconvenience and scandal of unmarried sexually active women. No one has been held to account for this. Not that a few people being locked up would be sufficient. Whole generations of Irish people were complicit in this outrage. How do we hold a society to account for its crimes? Are we even trying?

Sixth, is the sexual abuse perpetrated by Roman Catholic Priests, aided and abetted by their superiors. No one has has yet to be held responsible for this connivance. 

Seventh, is the wholesale abuse and neglect suffered by so many vulnerable people in our Church and State run institutions. There has been precious little done to heal the wounds of the past and apparently little done to stop that abuse continuing. 

Eighth, is the realisation that Ireland may have been complicit in the rape and torture of CIA prisoners. Will this government or any future one, ever seriously investigate if any of the victims of the CIA were routed through Shannon Airport? 

Ninth, is the simple matter of a law clearly benefiting the rich over the poor. Up to recently we had a clearly ridiculous bankruptcy regime. A bankrupt would not escape that state for 13 years. It was changed to three years, with a five year add on, to serve the banks interests. A rich person simply goes to the UK to serve nine months. It is so obviously unfair it leaves me speechless. 

Tenth, is the cronyism that pervades our political system. We'd hoped that the new government would stop this dead. It hasn't. 

Eleventh, is our relationship with the EU. I am a europhile to the tips of my fingers, but the relationship is strained. I can understand why our partners think we should pick up the lion's share of the banking debt. I understand it, but I disagree with it. And it is important for the health of that relationship, that this government are vocal in their attempts to alter the terms of the bailout. Little Irelanders aside, the European Union has been a very positive experience for Irish people. Paying for the mistakes of UK, German and French banks can only turn people away from further unity.   

And finally, though this list is in no way exhaustive, is the HSE. Hailed as a Great Leap Forward in the rationalisation and improvement of Ireland's health system it has been a hope sapping failure. Saddled, from day one, with too many of the wrong kind of staff (a template wholly copied by Irish Water) it has singularly failed to make our health system anything more than an income and location lottery. That it is under resourced is obvious, but convincing people that ever more taxes will solve the problem is fast becoming impossible. People are willing to pay for 'a' health system, but not this one.        

I'm sure there are innumerable other expanses of historic and current failures, that are contributing to the idea that this republic is failing. To even begin to tackle the enormity of this floundering requires a parliament, not just a government.  And no, this is not a call for a National Government, more it is a call for our government to include the Dáil. And for the opposition to negotiate and legislate without prioritising short term goals.   

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A view of the water charge protestors

First things first, a few disclaimers. I have a water meter and I signed up to pay the charges. Paying won't be easy, but I will. I'm a member of Fine Gael and I also supported two of the previous three governments. Finally, I entirely agree with the concept of paying for the amount of water I use 

So there are my cards on the table. 

It's also important to note that I think if this government falls because of the water charges controversy, they will have entirely earned that calamity. Even if I am knocking on doors, canvassing for a Fine Gael candidate, I won't be pretending Fine Gael and Labour acted sensibly. Everything about the setting up of Irish Water smacks of arrogance, incompetence and noxious presumption. When a government fails to fear its electorate, then it's time for that government to get a firm slap or go. 

This blog post however isn't about the prospects of an early general election. I want to write about who I think the protesters, who have thronged our streets, actually are. And for all of Fine Gael and Labour's fault, they did finally provoke 100s of 1000s of people into protesting. A fitting epitaph, if one is soon required. 

Obviously, as a member of Fine Gael, I am expected to rail against the 'sinister elements' that are piggy backing on public discontent to ferment anarchy and threaten our very existence. Pure bollox, but it's a good lie because it resonates. It resonates with me, even though I know it's bollox. 

The attack on Joan Burton did shake me. I despise, with all my being, anyone who uses physical violence to make a political point. I am quite content to get all reactionary conservative on people who indulge in those kind of antics. It is not correct however to seek to understand the multitudes who are protesting, by referencing a fringe of a fringe. 

I will not discount them entirely. But a tiny few organised thugs combined with some easily led (or eager to be led) young men, hungry for action, is in no way representative of so many people from all over the country. They are just not prevalent enough to tar such a huge movement. 

So to my list of participants. 

I will begin with those who actively (which does not equate to violently) seek to overthrow our system of government and uproot its foundation stones of democracy and capitalism. I'm talking about the Far Left and the even further left. Marxists, Trotskyites, communists, anarchists and various other labels I don't understand, even after consulting Wikipedia. Fortunately, for this democrat and capitalist, they are few and far between. I'm glad they exist though. Capitalist democracy is far from perfect and is often guilty of missteps. If nothing else, a radical and explicable alternative, waiting to pounce if our democracy loses popular support, should help keep anyone with a vested interest in the status quo, honest.  

The second group are the political opportunists. I would put Sinn Fein, various independents and shameless members of Fianna Fáil into this category.  I can't criticise any of these groups for this. Water Charges are not some social or moral issue that must be supported by decent folk. It's merely a money raising scheme, with some theoretical environmental and state finances benefits. If opposition politicians didn't jump on this issue and use it to beat the government with, then this country would be in a worse state than it already is. Now, I'm not saying I'd trust anything these opportunists say, but if protests of this size had no politicians involved, then democracy, as I understand it, would be in serious trouble. 

The third group are those who are taking a principled stand against what they understand to be a double taxation (triple if you throw in the Household Charge and quadruple if you include the USC). It's difficult to argue against this. We've paid for water through general taxation since 1973. Now we are expected to pay for it again, but with no discernible decrease in income tax. The answer given, is that our water system has been so neglected, that we need extra money to fix it. It's a compelling argument, unless one asks why has it been allowed to deteriorate so badly? Then politicians are forced to look at their feet and suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere. It has been neglected for one reason and one reason only, there were no votes in it. The vast majority of us have been getting more or less drinkable water for decades, so why promise to spend money on something not yet in crisis? But now the crisis has arrived. And it's arrived during an economic meltdown. Who's going to pay for the decades of neglect, those politicians who prioritised elsewhere or the ordinary citizen? Exactly. 

The fourth group are the people who simply can't pay this new charge. If you need that explaining to you, then you probably stopped reading at the part where I didn't give the leftists a bit of slipper. 

The fifth group are the citizens who probably can pay, but have this feeling in the pit of their stomach that tightens when they think of the so many billions of euro that have already left Ireland to pay bank debts. Ordinary people, with reduced standards of living, people who got nothing from The Boom. The people who have lost family members to emigration, lost family members to suicide, lost their homes, face the prospect of losing their homes, have gone hungry to keep their homes, people who are forced into internships, the people who are losing hope that this iniquitous austerity will one day end. The response of Fine Gael and Labour to this, is a blind faith that more and more low-paid jobs, in a possibly improving economy, will cause enough people to forget that we've been royally and systematically screwed. And it's a policy that may succeed. I'm hoping it does to be honest, but I wouldn't put any money on it.    

The sixth and final group are the 'enough is enough' people. This is pretty self-explanatory. Fine Gael and Labour promised all sorts of utopian nonsense at the last election. They won a huge majority, yet instead of radical change, the most they appear to be able to do is 'the best small country in the world in which to do business.' Has there ever been a rallying call so uninspiring? Worse, it is now virtually impossible to distinguish this government from the governments (the ones I supported don't forget) who destroyed our country and condemned so many to poverty, immigration and despair. Enough should certainly be enough. 

These groups are not discrete. They overlap in several places, but for the most part, they feel they have a genuine grievance with those elected to govern this country through an existential crisis. And they have enjoyed a certain degree of success. The government has already backed down once, quite considerably too. Unfortunately, it appears that this government thinks it has moved far enough. Almost a million households have signed up for the charges. This has all the appearance of overwhelming compliance, which the government presumes to mean satisfaction.     

But I can't help thinking they've misunderstood the multifaceted and complex motivations of the protesters. Or worse, they have understood and have decided to now only concentrate their efforts on appealing to their base. If that is the case, this government, which I wish to support, will end, being thought of as even worse that the previous one.   

Friday, November 7, 2014

Well I finally did it.

Well I finally did it. I ticked another item off my 'oh my Gandalf I've turned 40 and I'm going to die' Bucket List. On Tuesday, November 4, I performed a five minute stand-up comedy set in the Ha'Penny Bridge Inn.

It went well. It went very well.

I've been going on about this event for weeks. I shudder to think about how many people must have muted me, on Twitter, to protect themselves from my incessant neediness. On the night, despite my near overwhelming nerves, I could not help but be moved by the wonderful, generous and beautiful people of Twitter who turned up in such large numbers to support me.

Not only did the denizens of Twitter show up. Friends and family, from Dublin, Meath and Kerry did me the great kindness of paying good money to endure what could've been an immensely uncomfortable disaster. In attending, some of my family did experience an excruciating calamity. The MC, Ruairi Campbell, realised Kerry people, all related, were in attendance. Kerry jokes about cousins abounded.

The night began with an improv group. I found myself tuning out as the realisation hit me, I would actually be standing up to make a roomful of people laugh. I tuned back in when the excellent Eleanor Tiernan did a few minutes of new material. She was very funny. Then I tuned back out. Ordinarily I might have tried some Dutch Courage, but an experienced comedian had advised against it. I suppose being a shambles is forgivable, but being a drunk one is just downright disrespectful.

I had prepared a seven minute set, but as things were running late, we were asked to reduce our sets to five. I gotta say, this really worked in my favour. I was so nervous I forgot bits. This led to my timing being perfect as part of my act involved relating a particularly filthy story about me, which would be interrupted by a timer I had on stage. The problem was, people took it as a genuine interruption and urged me to continue. I had to explain I never intending telling the story.

What I remember of the performance itself? Expending a great deal of effort on appearing calm. Remembering a lot more of my material than I thought I would. Thank you to the comedian who told me to rehearse. A lot. And even then, I think I should have rehearsed more. I remember the laughter but I wasn't in the moment enough to really take it all in. And I remember the applause at the end.

I went outside to calm down a bit, then returned to watch the final comic, Oisin Hanlon. Now he was genuinely funny.

When we had all done our bit, the MC did the 'victory by acclaim' thing. More than half the people left in the room were friends and family of mine, so victory was assured. Though it was a close run thing. Oisin was that good. I even got a certificate, which I will be framing my certificate. 

Then I got to thank everyone who turned up. Some weren't surprised it went well. Others were hugely relieved I hadn't died on my arse. My partner could finally admit how nervous she had been, a fact she'd successfully hidden from me from the very moment I embarked on this ridiculous venture.

I couldn't relax for hours after. It was a wonderful adrenalin rush. I now understand why comics would choose (or be drawn against their will) to a way of life that is so financially precarious.

What have I learned? First and foremost, I learned I have the coolest friends on Earth. That memory will stay with me forever. Second, I'm really good at appearing calm, even when I'm shaking with nerves. Third, I can write stuff that's funny. As long as it's about my deteriorating body. Finally I learned I want to do it again. I want to do it again, but be more aware of the audience and more aware of how I am feeling when I am on stage.

So that's it. Another item ticked, a new experience experienced, something new learned, and most importantly, a new item added to my over all Bucket List; finding out if I can be any good at stand-up comedy. Well not exactly good at it, I'll settle for being on stage and not being so nervous I have to shut down whole parts of my brain.

The very kind Ruadhri Ardiff recorded my few minutes. (May not be safe for work, depending where you work)