The Democratic Post-Mortem

The campaign car of Joseph McGuinness, who won...
It's taking a while, but it's happening

Having done nothing to repudiate the last administration’s nationalisation of private debts, what did the government expect? The only reason the judge’s pay referendum passed was that a lot of the public thought it would hurt lawyers, whom after the Tribunal bills they hate almost as much.

People have had it demonstrated to them quite clearly that one party cannot (or won’t) do anything to reverse the mistakes of another. It makes it look like government is powerless in the face of our financial dependence on the EU. Which, when it comes down to it, seems to really mean dependence on major continental banks – the very banks by and large who lent excessively to ours. It should be eye-opening that the candidate of Sinn Féin, the only major party that declares it would repudiate the banks debts, out-polled Fine Gael‘s two to one.

Democracy has been suborned by capitalism when it should have been circumscribing it, and now it begins to feel like an exercise in futility. What sort of turnout is 52% for the most fiercely-contested Presidential election in the history of the state plus two referendums? Half of the population don’t think there’s any point. And the worrying thing is, they may be the half that’s right.

Tim Minchin Live In Galway

Darkside (Tim Minchin album)
Yipee

You know this wouldn’t be a bad lecture or TED talk, on the necessity of critical thinking. Dammit, it would make a pretty timely address to the United Nations too. Imagine that – a guy with a piano on the floor of the General Assembly.

But it’s none of these. It’s a comedy show – and a brilliant one.

Tim Minchin is a stand-up. It’s just that most of his routines rhyme and scan and are set to great music. It’s almost excessive in its wonderfulness, yet unlike other ostensibly clever comedians we could name Ricky Gervais, it’s not about him being clever. It’s about reality, honesty, and where we fail at them.

But it is clever. What did we do before we had comedy this smart? We were laughing at mud and funny-shaped pebbles. More than clever though, it is wise. Insightful, humanistic, brave stuff that takes a stand against a world full of willful ignorance. Is there an audience for that? Well 400 people in a venue in Ireland just gleefully applauded a song with the chorus “F*** the m*********ing Pope”.

And that’s two nights in a row, downstairs in the Radisson as part of the Bulmers Pear Galway Comedy Festival. Which took me aback. I thought I was into something a little bit obscure here, yet even way out west, in a country where Minchin has, to my knowledge, never even been on terrestrial TV, an enthusiastic capacity crowd gave him a standing ovation.

There’s hope for our species yet.

Sinn Féin Out On The Final Count

Martin Mc Guinness.
My Goodness

It says a lot about the state of the parties in Ireland right now that the ‘government’ candidate and Sinn Féin’s were neck-and-neck all the way. In fact as I write they’ve just been eliminated together.

A quick explanation: In the Single Transferable Vote electoral system, you number candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference. Votes are initially distributed according to the first preference, after which the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and the votes that went to them are transferred to the one marked as second. This process continues until one candidate has a ‘quota’ of votes, which in a presidential election is simply 50% of the valid poll. (If someone had gotten over 50% of the first preference votes the contest would have been over then and there of course, but that rarely happens.)

This is good because it takes into account the fact that voters may not only prefer one candidate, but particularly despise another. For instance I gave Seán Gallagher my seventh preference – out of seven candidates.  (I could actually have not numbered him at all, but mathematically it would have made no difference.)  A simple majority system can actually help the most-despised get elected, if their opposition is split among the less objectionable candidates. A case in point is 1990, where it would have given us Brian Lenihan Snr as President.

Sinn Féin’s McGuinness and Fine Gael‘s Mitchell were eliminated simultaneously because distributing the next-preference votes of either could not have elected the other, a logically valid time-saver. It is now theoretically possible that their redistributed votes could push Seán Gallagher over the finish line ahead of Michael D. Higgins in the most astonishing electoral reversal since, well, since yesterday. But that won’t happen. Both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael voters are going to strongly prefer the official Labour candidate over the unofficial Fianna Fáil. In fact all other candidates have conceded, so the count is something of a formality at this stage.

But to get back to the original point, Michael D. was never really seen as representative of government – perhaps because he’s a socialist. Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell was taken by the electorate to be the official candidate of a government swept to power in February on a mandate for change – yet there is little between his vote and that for the man who is widely believed to have been leader of the IRA. I was surprised by this. I really thought Martin McGuinness would do better.

It’s A Halloween Miracle

Presidential Election Campaign 2011 - Michael D
Ladies, Gentlemen, The President

Kind of a weak headline I know, but I have a rule about not using the C-word before November. Winter during an economic recession is depressing enough.

But wow, what an electoral rollercoaster ride. You have to ask if the polls were ever right about Gallagher’s huge lead. What I’d be most curious about is how the people who said they were going to vote to pollsters compare to the numbers who actually bothered. The Michael D. vote probably represented more loyalty.

Well this comes as a relief. I think we would have regretted a Gallagher presidency.

No On Both Referendums

"Well Connected" - Photo Irish Independent

Turnout is low. Too low.

Late in the day as it is, I want to urge people to get out and reject both referendums. There is a lot of confusion about them, I do not think government has paid sufficient attention to explaining them – in itself a reason to refuse their request for a change – and in particular there seems to be misunderstanding over the judges’ pay issue with many associating it with the exorbitant legal costs, of the Tribunals in particular.

The legal profession does need to be reined in, but this amendment simply has nothing to do with that. It is the fees charged by barristers and law firms that make legal action so expensive. Judges are paid by the state, and the cost of employing them is almost trivial by comparison.

Of course reducing their pay would save some cash. But not a lot, and it would come at the price of a very important principle. What is there to stop a future government, with a bill being tested in the Supreme Court for constitutionality, threatening judges with drastic pay reductions? If this amendment passes, nothing.

The independence of the judiciary is essential to a free country, and we shouldn’t even be dreaming of compromising it.

As for the other amendment, I think the Oireachtas should have the power to hold parliamentary enquiries. But I would rather we did without them for a bit longer than give excessive powers to government. This amendment seems very vague, and I simply can’t believe that broad new powers for TDs and Senators won’t end up being abused for political ends. We need to examine this more carefully.

And as for the Presidency, that’s turned from a fun game into a desperate last-minute attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of Fianna Fáil. You may not be a fan of Michael D., but he’s the only one now who can prevent our next President being a man who, increasingly, looks like a new Bertie Ahern.

Please, get out there and help.

So How Will I Vote?

Presidential flag of Ireland.
First Prize - The Presidential Flag

Great feeling of power here. Because the polls open soon there’s a reporting moratorium. Broadcast media have to shut up about the Presidential election. Print media don’t though. So today, blogging is officially print… If you want to be sure not to break any laws, print this off and only read that.

Two things sadden me about the election. The first is that the man who is within an ace of becoming our next President was until recently a member of Fianna Fáil. To my mind he still is in all but name. The McGuinness ambush may have been rather tabloidesque, but at least it alerted a much larger section of the public to this. It doesn’t matter a damn whether he collected a cheque personally, if it was before or after the event or if the donor had a criminal conviction. What matters is that Seán Gallagher was fundraising for Fianna Fáil right into the Cowen era. Surely that is enough to disqualify him as a prospective President.

The other thing is that the case for Michael D. Higgins never seems to have been made somehow. It looked for a good while that he was simply going to drift into the Presidency mainly on the strength of there being nothing particularly wrong with him. Which would have been a shame really, because he is probably the candidate with the most positives. He’s a nice man with a genuine, active interest in justice and human rights, very much in the mould of Mary Robinson. I believe there are more good reasons to vote for Michael D. than anyone.

OK yeah, I kind of wanted David Norris to win. But that wasn’t for good reasons. More for the entertainment potential. It’s gone beyond fun and games now though. No one but the mild-mannered academic socialist can prevent the next President of Ireland being a product of our worst ever government.

Seán Gallagher’s Open Secret

Three Thumbs Up

The national sport of Ireland is, as you know, Getting Away With It. Politicians like Haughey and Ahern were not popular in spite of their unexplained wealth. People want to beat the system, so they vote for politicians who beat the system.

What they get from that of course is a system beating itself.

So it’s not that people are tricked into thinking that Seán Gallagher has nothing to do with Fianna Fáil. They know it’s a pretence, and they are willing to play along with that pretence. They may tell each other that Gallagher represents a new, reformed party, or even a future alternative to it. But does he? Hardly. He’s close to the Construction Industry Federation, of all things. Lobbying group for probably the biggest bull in our whole economic china shop. All that’s new is the improved presentation, and Gallagher is all presentation. He’s not a successful businessman, but he plays one on TV.

Yet for many, he provides the perfect compromise: They can pretend they’re still voting to punish those responsible for our economic free-for-all, while actually promoting the party they believe most likely to bend the rules in their favour. It the same old politics of the man on the inside, the same old story of the state that subverted itself.

Just Sign Here Here Here And Here

Shelby County Courthouse, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
"So what's the surpri... Was that a click?"

This is worrying stuff.

You’d hardly notice, but we’re being asked to change the Constitution this Thursday. Twice. Yet nobody is acting like this is much of a deal. The amendments are being thrown in with the Presidential election like some sort of democratic side order, and getting about as much attention. This despite the fact that a Constitutional amendment actually, you know, changes something, while a ceremonial President – in spite of the impression they try to create in their election campaigns – can change about bugger all.

These are not trivial matters either. One would remove the bar on reductions to the pay of judges, something placed in the Constitution deliberately to prevent the sitting government pressuring the judiciary. The other would allow the houses of the Oireachtas¹ to conduct their own quasi-judicial investigations. That would seem to give them quite a lot of power. How much? Well according to part of the proposed amendment:

4º It shall be for the House or Houses concerned to determine, with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry into any matter to which subsection 2º applies.’

So only the Oireachtas can say how much power it can give itself. Though it is of course restricted by law. Which the Oireachtas also creates.

Yes parliaments often have powers of investigation, but this seems very broadly drawn, and likely to make power in this country even more unbalanced. Government in a democracy is generally divided into three main branches: The executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. There is meant to be a measure of conflict between these roles, in order to ensure that everyone is watching what everyone is up to.

We’re a parliamentary democracy though; that immediately reduces internal contention because it means there is no effective difference between the executive and the legislature. Unlike countries with an executive presidency such as France or the US, the legislature elects the executive – which then pretty much dictates everything else the legislature does.

Another safety mechanism is a bicameral legislature; two houses each with oversight of the other – House/Senate, Commons/Lords, etc. Our upper house though is effectively the creation of the executive, which appoints the majority of its members. So no balance there either; whatever party wins most seats in an election just sweeps the board of executive and both houses.

That only leaves the judiciary as an independent power, and we are being asked to pass two amendments to our constitution, one of which will take away its chief protection against undue government pressure, the other of which will usurp some of its functions. Still wonder why I’m worried?

 

  1. Parliament/Congress

I Like Your Haircut

Ghost?!
So lenders are being shorn. The haircut the public are expected to take looks more like this

Sixty percent – the haircut that lenders to Greece may have to take if Europe is to avoid bailing their economy out to the tune of half a trillion. Maybe the powers that be – the ‘troika’ of the IMF, the commission, and the ECB – are finally coming to terms with the idea that crushing all life out of a country with punitive austerity makes about as much sense as treating traumatic blood loss with leeches. If the eurozone economies are to be saved then the continent’s major banks are going to have to take some of the pain too.

For Greece only, you understand. The same logic doesn’t apply to us for some reason.

A patient at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Louth, just spent five days on a trolley in the Accident and Emergency department. In better days that would have constituted a horror story in itself, but today it barely raises an eyebrow. Wait till you find out what he had. TB. Tuberculosis. There in public, with a constant flow of sick and injured people around him.

The devastation that TB wrought on this country, that’s still a living memory. It was one of the primary forces that led to the creation of what social health provision we had. Which is now in danger of being sacrificed to expediency – and banks. Banks that lent recklessly into our economy because they were out to make a profit, yet somehow must not be allowed to take a loss.

The Death Of The Killer

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.
The most shocking of all images of Gaddafi - as a sane, smiling human being

I.Doubt.It is pleased to announce that we for one will not be showing you pictures of Muammar Gaddafi’s damaged corpse. Why so squeamish, some ask. Are we too sheltered from death? I think not. We all come across plenty real death in our lives, not least our own, and we are saturated with incredible amounts of fake death in the guise of entertainment.

It’s just decency. I think all humans feel that the dead deserve a measure of respect. As far as we can tell even our closest relatives like homo erectus, who used tools and fire and probably spoke, did not do anything with the bodies of their dead. Nomads, they simply moved on, leaving corpses where they lay. With sadness no doubt, but without ceremony. By contrast all humans, even those who have no belief in an afterlife, treat the bodies of the dead with a special respect – when they can. It appears to be an instinct, one unique to our species.

So when we turn images of real dead people into a lurid form of quasi-entertainment, parading them for shock, sales, or triumphalism, it is quite literally dehumanising.

I’m not surprised that they killed him of course. It’s a war. Should we care that they did? Yes. We should always care that the right thing is done. And I don’t think it was here. Gaddafi died in custody. According to the BBC, acting Prime Minister Mahmoud…

…confirmed that Col Gaddafi had been taken alive, but died of bullet wounds minutes before reaching hospital.

It remains unclear just how and when Gaddafi got those bullet wounds.

Nonetheless this is good news for Libya, and I hope an example for the rest of the Middle East. In Tunisia and Egypt, leaders stepped down in the face of mass protest and are alive to this day. Gaddafi clung to power, and was shot in the belly and head. That may give other dictators – like, say, Syria‘s Assad –  something to sleep on.