Save The Senate

Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland
Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s not try to avoid the obvious here. The Seanad is an embarrassment. It’s astonishingly, intrinsically and indeed deliberately unrepresentative. It is a pawn of the executive, a sinecure for the superannuated, an affront to democracy.

But it’s something.

Embarrassing and undemocratic, because our Senate is fascist through and through. I’m quite serious. Its structure was inspired by a social theory called corporatism, applied under Mussolini’s government and endorsed enthusiastically by the Papacy as an alternative to the danger of electing socialists or communists.

The idea was that instead of voting in the traditional area-based way, members of society would be represented according to the role they played. So there would be workers’ representatives and bosses’ representatives, and instead of strikes (which would be illegal) they would reach agreement in parliament. It all seems rather sweet and naive really. If you overlook the fascist bit. It’s also fantastically paternalistic and condescending. Rather like communism, you don’t get to elect lawmakers directly. You elect people who elect people who elect people.

Well OK, one sort of person is considered sufficiently mature. As a university graduate, I get to vote directly for a Senator! We’re smart. The rest of you, you’re all represented by your trade union or your business organisation. And if you’re not an employee, an employer or a member of the graduate professions, well I guess you just don’t belong in the ideal world of Pope Pius XI.

At the same time though, the Senate can’t actually do anything. In framing the constitution of 1937, de Valera wasn’t going to create a power system to rival his party machine. Arguably it was a sop to the Catholic Church – which unlike communism actually could threaten democratic government. The Senate can say what it likes but it can’t stop a law passing or force any amendments. It can just delay a bill.

Unless the Dáil considers it urgent, and suspends even that power.

We should be glad I guess that it’s both powerless and undemocratic, and not just one of those things. But what it should be of course is neither. Whether directly elected or appointed by lottery (actually a better idea than it sounds), it must be constituted in a way that represents people equally. And it should have powers. Not to rival the Dáil’s authority of course, but sufficient to oversee legislation.

We speak of the checks and balances necessary to democracy, but in practise we ignore them pretty much completely. We have a winner-takes-all system of government. When you’ve got the Dáil you’ve hit the jackpot. Take the opposite extreme: In the US the executive is elected directly, entirely independently of the legislature. The legislature itself is divided into two houses of almost equal power, watching each other. These three branches plus the judiciary keep power balanced. Sometimes rather closely balanced as we’re seeing right now, but balanced.

Our system looks a lot like that, but the resemblance is almost wholly superficial. Despite being directly elected, our President is virtually powerless. The executive is elected by, and from among, the party or parties that win the Dáil (House). Finally, the Senate is packed with the executive’s nominees. So it’s true to say that the deadlock currently besetting America wouldn’t happen under our system. But that’s because under ours, the President and the Senate would be Republican too.

An Irish Taoiseach is as close to a dictator as it’s possible to get under the rule of law. Party discipline ensures cabinet assent. Except in rare cases of a minority administration, his will is inevitably carried out by the legislature. Only the judiciary is truly independent, and the circumstances under which they can review legislation are highly circumscribed. So it’s true that abolishing the Senate won’t remove a lot of government supervision. Just the little bit we had.

And once it’s gone, once all power is finally vested in the Dáil, do you seriously think they’ll ever give it back? We need a parliamentary system with more checks and balances, not fewer.

Creeplove Salvation

Captured from Twitter:

CreeploveSalvation

Love it. It neatly captures the Catholic Church’s schizophrenic morality. Insinuating itself into public and private life, offering its creeplove salvation.

The “Sindo” by the way is the Sunday Independent newspaper. They like to run polls. I seem to have voted in one just now by clicking on a link in fact. At least it thanked me for voting – I still don’t know what the question was. So I wouldn’t give too much weight to the results, I don’t think 22% of people today would really prefer a woman to die than have an abortion.

I wish I could be sure though.

Creeplove Salvation

Captured from Twitter:

CreeploveSalvation

Love it. It neatly captures the Catholic Church’s schizophrenic morality. Insinuating itself into public and private life, offering its creeplove salvation.

The “Sindo” by the way is the Sunday Independent newspaper. They like to run polls. I seem to have voted in one just now by clicking on a link in fact. At least it thanked me for voting – I still don’t know what the question was. So I wouldn’t give too much weight to the results, I don’t think 22% of people today would really prefer a woman to die than have an abortion.

I wish I could be sure though.

Ireland's Abortion Law

Several people have asked me how our laws can directly contradict our own Supreme Court, which ruled that a pregnancy may be terminated when it threatens the woman’s life. How was this disconnect allowed to continue until somebody died? It’s not easy to explain, but I gave it my best shot.

It’s a constitutional impasse. The Supreme Court cannot force the introduction of a law, nor can it strike down existing legislation. It can only reject as unconstitutional bills referred to it by the President before signing. So the existing law – a blanket criminalization of abortion (for which the penalty is life imprisonment!) – stands, even if it is in conflict with the constitution.

The government has a clear duty to amend the law to reflect the Constitution – indeed, has had that clear duty for 20 years now – but legislature is meant to be the sovereign voice of the people so nothing has the power to force it to legislate, and neither major party wants to handle the political poison chalice of abortion. Even with the Catholic Church in general disrepute, religious observance at an all-time low, and polls showing strong support for abortion in some circumstances, framing the legislation would still spark huge ideological conflict in the conservative grassroots of both. And it takes a lot to shift the idea that abortion = killing BABIES, especially with religious right organizations able to wallpaper the country with pictures of cute foetuses at will. (They’re not short of funds, they have strong links with the religious right in the US.)

In 2010 however three women brought a case to the European Court Of Human Rights, which basically told the government that pretending a major women’s rights issue would just sort of somehow go away was not acceptable. And so it did what governments do – commissioned an inquiry to elect a commission to create a report, so weakening their identification with the eventual legislation, and of course delaying the fateful day a little longer.

A little too long for Savita Halappanavar.

The bitter irony for the religious right is that it’s the “Pro-life” amendment they campaigned for back in 1983, in the hope of keeping out a (then) rising tide of liberalism, that makes the antediluvian abortion law unconstitutional – because it describes an equal right to life for the woman¹. They didn’t want any woman’s right to be mentioned of course. They would probably have been happy with the innocent foetus having a prior right to existence over a necessarily sinful adult woman. Relatively sane legislators at least managed to insert this in the process of framing a constitutional amendment bill. But in a horrific case in 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that the suicidal feelings of a pregnant child rape victim constituted a threat to her life, so making that grounds for an abortion.

The religious right saw this as a potential – even deliberate – opening for abortion on demand. Now all a woman would need to do is say she felt a bit low and she’d get an abortion. So they actually campaigned to amend their amendment to explicitly discount suicide as a danger to the woman’s life.

Naturally the populace rejected this. We’ve heard about the judgement of Solomon.

When we rejected it, they tried to introduce it again. We rejected it again.

And you know what makes this all surreal and ridiculous? There is abortion available on demand in Ireland, and has been for decades. Not within Ireland, no. But a twenty minute plane ride away. You can go to Britain² or many other parts of the EU. I don’t claim this doesn’t put significant obstacles in the way, especially of poorer women, but thousands obtain terminations every year. Our bizarrely dated, draconian law prevents hardly any abortions at all.

Not that the religious right hasn’t tried to change this as well. When it was established that a woman in certain circumstances – i.e, she might die – was legally entitled to the abortion she couldn’t legally have here, they campaigned to prevent woman travelling abroad to have abortions, or obtaining information about abortion services in other countries. In a way it’s a shame they didn’t get their way. If women were being given ultrasound scans in the airports, if we had Internet filters to block sites that mention abortion, if adverts were cut out of papers and magazines, then their illiberal ideological madness would have been seen for what it was. We’d probably have abortion on demand here now. The ideological posturing survives because in reality it makes little difference.

Unless of course you are too sick to travel.

Sorry for that excursion through the history of nasty. We now reach the current situation, where things have been finessed with “guidelines” for medical practice – essentially, a life-saving medical procedure that inadvertently kills a foetus is not an abortion. Which seems all quite humane – until you have a situation like Savita Halappanavar’s, where terminating her pregnancy was not an operation necessary to save her life but merely one that would have reduced a hard-to-quantify risk to her life. Now I think a sane person would say that if the foetus cannot survive then there is zero conceptual, never mind moral, reason not to abort. Unfortunately the law as it stands was not created by any sane process.

But as luck would have it, the report I mentioned has just been completed and is about to be published – right into this storm of moral outrage. I am cautiously confident that things will change now.

²Or “the mother” as the amendment calls her, in some quite extraordinarily loaded language.
²Britain rather than the UK advisedly, as in a weird cross-border mirroring, abortion is also illegal in Northern Ireland. Presbyterians seem no more hot on women’s rights than Catholics.

The Kids Should Have Rights

Look at that. That’s the kind of crap I’m doing these days. That’s SQL – Structured Query Language. It’s what you use to handle the huge databases of information that all modern organisations run on. What’s more it’s SQL done the hardcore way – from an old-fashioned character terminal instead of your fancy modern graphical interface. It’s really just one step up from reams of paper with green lines on it. And as you can see, just to be extra masculine I’m doing it on Linux. What are the advantages of using Linux rather than Windows here? None at all. Linux actually makes it harder. But that’s how we like it.

“It’s hard to know which way to vote,” my mother said today. We’re having a constitutional referendum on whether children should have the right to be recognised as individuals rather than as the property of their (biological) parents – which, simplifying violently, is the situation as it stands.

Don’t worry, my mother’s not ideologically opposed to freedom for kids. Like many others she was just confused by all the argument. The law requires the state – and state media – to give an equal hearing to both sides of a constitutional referendum. So if we ever decided say to put a clause against genocide in the Constitution, the government would have to publish booklets that were 50% in favour of massacring whole ethnic groups. Which would be interesting.

And this referendum has found so little mainstream opposition that it’s already spotlight time for the loons. Sinn Féin are in favour, for God’s sake. Even the Catholic Church isn’t opposing it openly. So people with some really quite odd opinions have been dug out to appear on TV. “Who is this John Waters?” she asked. “A wanker,” I explained.

There are some opposing arguments that are not irrational, but the overwhelming majority of people who have to deal with issues around child protection seem to be for this change, so it’s them I think I’ll go with. But whichever way you feel, I hope you do vote – if only to take advantage of the chance to protest against the horrific economic punishments being forced on this country. I don’t mean spoil your vote – referendums are too important for that. Someone made a brilliant alternative suggestion:

You have to fold your ballot before you put it in the box. But there are no rules about how you fold it.

Fold it into a paper aeroplane, to symbolise the ultimate fate of the children for whom government professes to care. Imagine the impact it would have when they opened the boxes on national TV if we all did it.

The Tithes That Bind

The catholic church St. Kilian in Mulfingen in...
The catholic church St. Kilian in Mulfingen in Southern Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We think it’s bad here, where if you don’t pay a tax your children could be kept out of university. In Germany, they’ll refuse to bury you.

For this is church tax. Yes, they have church tax in Germany. Actually this is in a lot of countries, and it’s not quite as weird as it sounds. Instead of being forced by social pressure to put money in a collection, a percentage of your income tax is funnelled to the religion you nominate. And yes, it can go to none at all.

It seems that more and more people though, while nominally Catholic, have not been paying Catholic tax. The kind the church would like us to refer to as “lapsed”, of Catholic backgrounds but who, whether due to abhorrence of its actions or simple lack of belief, no longer take any active part. Maybe going at Christmas. Maybe getting married in church to please their mothers. Maybe being buried in the family plot.

No longer. It appears things were brought to a head by a Catholic theologian who took the issue to court. Interestingly, he in no way wanted to refuse a contribution. His objection was to doing it through the taxation system. It was a church and state thing. Or if you want to take a religious point of view, a God and Mammon thing. But the upshot is that the Catholic Church in Germany has come down hard on paying your dues. In or out, no more fannying around. If you aren’t a subscribing member, you will be refused… services.

As marketing it’s a master stroke. People will value what a religion provides much more if it has a certain exclusivity. The Catholic Church – Members Only. It seems a perfectly sensible business model – for an insurance company, or a breakdown service, or a gym. I’m not sure how they’re going to make this work for a religion though. I mean, the important thing in Christianity is what you believe, isn’t it? Not what you invest. Will deathbed repentance still be good enough, or will you have to sign a cheque for your backlog of tithes before you get absolution?

Because that’s awful reminiscent of something the German Catholic Church did before once, and it didn’t work out well.

Help! It’s Aer Lingus

Finland - Where they'll do anything naked

It’s all right, I don’t need help really. It’s just the only wordplay I could think of. For today was May Day, a feast dedicated to Spring. Except in Ireland where it’s dedicated to Mary, because only the Catholic Church could transform a feast of fecundity into a celebration of sanctified virginity.

Of course before the Christians it was Bealtaine, still by tradition the first day of summer, and we’ve never let the fact that it’s usually raining deflect us from that.

And God it was miserable today. So it made my mind up. I have just now booked my holidays. I’m going to sunny Finland. Seriously. It’ll probably be much warmer than here, come July. I plan a week or so of simple rustic pleasures. Camp on an island, take saunas, get naked, chop wood. Though not in that order.

So I’ve just been through the usual “Ryanair or Aer Lingus” juggling game. The last time I went Finland way I just plumped for Ryanair, unrealising that if I’d gone with Aer Lingus I would have only paid a little more to fly straight in Helsinki where my friend actually lives, as opposed to Tampere, a tiny airport that’s a short bus ride – and then a very long¹ train journey – north.

So this time I gave Aer Lingus serious consideration. Just as well – Ryanair doesn’t fly to Finland anymore. Not directly anyway. You can go there from Stansted. Alternatively, you can fly from Dublin to Tallinn in Estonia, from where it’s a pretty short hop. There may be other ways you could make it, it’s not too easy to figure this out with their site, but taking a two-step trip with Ryanair is out of the question anyway. If the lateness of their first connection causes you to miss the second, they take no responsibility.

They’ve been a great influence on Aer Lingus though. It’s no exaggeration to say that the national airline is often actually the cheaper now. OK, in some respects their service has just plunged to Ryanair’s level, but at least you don’t get the feeling that if you click the wrong thing on their site you’ll lose a kidney. With Ryanair everything you press seems to raise the price, including the back button.

Mind you, there are signs that Aer Lingus might be going that way. It would be easy to get the impression that even after you’ve bought your ticket you still have to pay for your seat! In fact it’s an option to book a seat, but it’s not very obvious that you don’t have to.

I called it the national airline; of course, it’s now 3% less national. Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad just got a bit. We buy their oil, they buy our strategic transport infrastructure. That’s going to end well. And with the country’s finances being in the state they are, speculation is rife that the government will sell off its share. My flight’s not until July; by the time I take it, it may not be with an Irish airline.

  1. Though this being Finland, very fast and reasonably priced.