Sunday 14 November 2010

Live from Twitter - #IamSpartacus and #twitterjoketrial

Saturday 2 October 2010

To Serve and Protect: The Case of the Dáil 'Gatecrasher'

"Iceland is a country with a banking system attached. In contrast, Ireland is a banking system with a country attached to it"
So says David McWilliams in a piece he penned a while back, contrasting the response of the Icelandic government with that of their Irish counterparts; in terms of their response to the impact of the meltdown of the global financial system on both countries.

When presented with the bill the Icelandic government put the issue to the people in a referendum. This week the Irish government revealed the likely 'final' cost of bailing out Anglo-Irish Bank. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was reported as saying:
"Yes, of course, these figures are horrendous, but they can be managed over a 10-year period." - Irish Independent, 1/10/10. 

There was no talk of a referendum and the prospect of one seems remote; unless an election is called and that election becomes an effective referendum on the present government's performance and the future approach to take.

Another event took place this week which more dramatically illustrates the contention that 'Ireland is a banking system with a country attached.' During a protest outside the gates of Dáil Éireann an incident occurred with resulted in the arrest of a truck driver (later described as a property developer with unspecified grievances against Anglo-Irish Bank). The truck was emblazoned with various slogans describing Anglo-Irish Bank as a 'toxic bank'.

It is not clear the precise nature of the offence, if any. Initial reports suggested that he attempted to crash the gates of Dáil Éireann. There were even reports (which some have ascribed to Fine Gael TD, Phil Hogan) "that one garda had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit by the oncoming truck" - implying of course that lives had been endangered by such an act.

In subsequent reports however this has been downplayed to the suggestion that he merely:
"drove the cement lorry ... up against the Leinster House gates ... just hours before TDs were due to begin the new Dail term. The vehicle was travelling slowly and a small amount of paint damage was caused to the gates." - Irish Independent, 30/9/10

The protestor was arrested under Section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act. There has been much comment and comparison in the media between this treatment of a protestor, who has been charged with criminal damage, and the fact that those who have bankrupted the country are walking free.

In court on Friday the man's solicitor, Cahir O'Higgins told the judge that his client very much protested his innocence citing his constitutional right under "Article 40.6.1 to express freely his convictions and opinions." (Irish Times, 1/10/10)

The Irish Independent provided the fullest coverage of the court proceedings:
Sgt John Egan, presenting, said the gardai agreed to bail for Mr McNamara on two conditions -- that he stay away from Anglo Irish Bank headquarters on St Stephen's Green and that he not come to the unfavourable attention of the gardai. 
However, the judge demurred from the first condition, saying that anyone going to any bank must go "lawfully and not commit any offence". 
The judge agreed with Mr O'Higgins to further clarify in the bail conditions that Mr McNamara should not come to the "unlawful" attention of the gardai. - Irish Independent, 1/10/10

There a couple of questions arising out of this affair that have much deeper ramifications than parking violations and public order.

Why did the prosecuting Garda only request that the defendant (Mr McNamara) stay away from the HQ of Anglo Irish Bank? The incident occured outside the headquarters of Irish democracy - Dáil Éireann. If the behaviour on that occasion was threatening or violent then it is tantamount to an assault upon democracy and the foundations of the Irish state. Prosecution should proceed from this standpoint.

What does it reveal when terms like 'unfavourable attention of the gardaí' are clarified in favour of 'unlawful attention'? The stated mission of An Garda Síochána is 'Working with Communities to Protect and Serve'.
Some of An Garda Síochána’s core functions include the detection and prevention of crime; ensuring our nation’s security; reducing the incidence of fatal and serious injuries on our roads and improving road safety; and working with communities to prevent anti-social behaviour, promote an inter-agency approach to problem solving and improve the overall quality of life. - from the website of An Garda Síochána.

On the surface, all of these are very laudable objectives; so in a normally functioning society unfavourable attention and unlawful attention of such a force would be tantamount to the same thing. In the instance of Mr McNamara and Anglo-Irish Bank however, a judge has ruled that this is not the case. Think about it!

Another apparent irony is that, in this instance An Garda Síochána seem to have placed the safety and security of Anglo-Irish Bank above the safety of their own membership. There was no report of Mr McNamara being charged with endangering the life of a Garda which, according to some reports did occur. Assaults, or even the threat of assault upon members of An Garda Síochána are generally taken very seriously by law enforcement authorities in Ireland; often pursued with much more vigour than attacks against ordinary civilians.

Although Anglo-Irish Bank is now nationalised it widely perceived as a weight around the collective neck which threatens to sink us all. How can it suggested that the security of such an institution is more important than the security of Dáil Éireann which still serves some function in Irish life?

But then that would not be surprising if you take the view that Ireland is a banking system with a country attached.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2010

Sunday 19 September 2010

Morning Ireland, Morning After

An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen described aspersions cast about his condition and state of mind (somewhere between drunk and hungover) during his Morning Ireland interview of 14th September as 'a new low in Irish politics'. It may be low but it's not entirely new. It is though revealing about the relationship between the media and political establishments, how and why 'news' gets reported.

Few would disagree that Brian Cowen has a face for radio but what was probably not taken into consideration, until now, is that he doesn't always possess a voice that carries well over the airwaves. Actually it all brings to mind an admission made a few years ago by former TD Liz O'Donnell that she often gave radio interviews in her bra and undies. But that's Liz O'Donnell. She is blonde after all (or so it says on the bottle) and she did wait until she had left politics before making the admission. Somehow I feel that a similar admission by Brian Cowen would leave the country with no choice but to demand his removal from office, if not from politics altogether.

It is worth noting that not all sections of the media have jumped on the judgmental bandwagon. Some have simply limited themselves to straight-forward reporting of facts. Writing in the Irish Independent, Fiach Kelly suggested:
It was a night typical of any party gathering, enjoyed by TDs, senators and assembled journalists. At the time, no one could have foreseen the political storm that would envelop the Taoiseach in what would become one of the most damaging episodes of his political career.
An explanation for the reticence might be gleamed from another Irish Independent report, published just prior to the Galway event, this time by John Drennan:
The stage is set for a dramatic showdown between the Cowen and Lenihan factions at the much-anticipated Fianna Fail parliamentary party think-in at the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway next week.
After a summer of feverish intrigue the two factions within the party will confront each other for the first time in three months.

Was Brian Cowen's apparent blunder merely the culmination of such intrigue, which happens all the time and passes for 'politics' with some people. If it is the case that there is in-fighting within Fianna Fáil between the Cowen and Lenihan camps, it is interesting to speculate what bearing it could have had on another public gaffe that broke, at almost exactly the same time, but this time concerning the Finance Minister's brother, Conor Lenihan. It seems that the country's Minister for Science was planning to perform duties at the launch of a book claiming to 'debunk' Darwinian evolution.

But the biggest hurdle for the Lenihan camp, asuming such exists, is that their leadership contender is currently battling with cancer. It will of course be remembered that the manner in which this story was revealed, back in December of last year, caused consternation among Fianna Fáil supporters, or some of them at any rate. Complaints were even made against TV station that broke the story. It went all the way to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland which ruled that it was factual and accurate. There is of course still the unanswered question of who leaked the information in the first place!

The fallout following the Galway event has produced claims and counter-claim and numerous reports about what was said, how much drink was taken, etc. On the other hand, news has been somewhat sparse on the nature and purpose of the event itself - i.e. a Fianna Fáil party gathering, billed as a 'think-in' which one might have expected to produce some kind of assessment of the state of the country, the economy and how the biggest political party in the state propose to address the problems.

I actually had to go to the Fianna Fáil website to get the text of An Taoiseach's speech. In summary, he outlines some factors that he thinks will benefit Irish economic fortunes in the medium to long-term. He mentions that "there is more to this country than Anglo-Irish Bank - terrible burden though that is", from which one could conclude that the government has no plan to change from it's present stance in relation to this issue. He points to investments in infrastructure that the government is continuing to make and identifies export-led growth and attracting foreign direct investment as key to recovery. However all this is underpinned by what is considered the main imperative at the present time - stabilising of public finances, a euphemism for cutbacks.

Besides accusations of drunkeness directed at Brian Cowen the term 'uninspiring' was also used to characterise his Galway performance. There may be more credence to this view. One feels however that Brian Cowen is not alone in that regard and isn't solely to blame.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2010

Wednesday 21 July 2010

The Funding of Political Parties

Addressing the McGill Summer School in Co. Donegal, former Taoiseach Dr Garret Fitzgerald called for an urgent end to the funding of political parties by big business. Or so it was reported by certain sections of the media. I have not seen the text of his speech. His precise words are not reported by any of the media outlets that picked up on it (Irish Examiner, Newstalk). Other accounts would suggest that the issue was just one of many that he addressed in a fairly wide-ranging attack on political corruption in Ireland.

But lets assume the reported comments are an accurate reflection of the former Taoiseach's views on the matter. If he wants to come on this blog and correct any misapprehensions, he is more than welcome. "The risk of political corruption must be removed by stopping politicians from being funded by business," was how The Irish Examiner reported his speech.

Interestingly the debate has re-ignited in recent days with Fitzgerald's party colleague, Lucinda Creighton, apparently lashing out at her party leader for accepting a political donation. (Irish Independent, 21/7/10, Kenny furious as Creighton attacks party over donation). Also, if memory serves me correct, the Green Party have similar apprehensions about big business funding for political parties and raised the matter in the context of their programme for government with Fianna Fáil.

In the absence of any concrete proposals, it is hard to see how various people believe the political process should be funded. Maybe it shouldn't be funded? Maybe we've reached a stage where we can do without it? Somehow or other though, I don't think the people who are raising the issue at this time are anarchists. Is business supposed to be above politics? Or politics above business? Or are the two entirely separate realms that should never even come within proximity to each other, let alone overlap or collide?

The truth is that business and politics are not separate pursuits, activities in themselves, nor should they be. Of course for some people, politics is their business, their mainstay, their means of procuring a livelihood. We're not just talking about elected representatives here either. It is well known that these people are more often than not in a position akin to feudal barons, supporting a host of ancillary 'industries'.

The confusion arises when a lot of stuff that isn't really politics, passes for, and gets debated as politics. For politics to happen the primary question it must address is the relations that human beings enter into with each other in the course of procuring a livelihood. For society to work, the question has to be addressed in a manner that is all-encompassing, involving each and every social strata and anyone else who has an opinion. Any other debate, if it doesn't have this central objective in mind, is just waffle, a diversion possibly.

Idealistic types will always be victims of deception, duplicity and deceit in political and other affairs until they learn to discern the real interest behind each and every moral, religious, ethical question, crusade or call to action. Personally I'm not sure how the proposal (sketchy at best) to ban big business donations to political parties will address any issue. It could, in all possibility make matters an awful lot worse, harder to live with.

Take the issue of political corruption or sleaze. None of the high profile cases in recent times, resulting in 'tribunals of inquiry' that have lasted years, even decades, arose out of big business donations to political parties. For the most part they arose due to under-the-counter payments (brown paper envelopes) to individuals who were part of the political system, yet seemed to be operating outside of it. They use their positions in public life for personal gain and self-aggrandisement.

'Big Business' is an ambiguous term yet all businesses, big are small are required to operate in ways that are accountable, audit-able even. The same could or should be said for political parties. To my mind, banning big business donations to political parties will only exacerbate the problem, not remedy it. 'Business' big or small will continue to find ways (perhaps even more effective ways) to influence the political process.

Such a ban could end up suiting precisely those people that it is targeted against. Denied the right to influence the political process in the 'lawful way', they will instead seek out those within the political system whom they consider to be 'leaders and influencers'. They will win such people over, not through an open system of political patronage, but by financing their private lifestyles. It might even prove to be a whole lot cheaper than having to underwrite the entire political system.

If you don't believe that such a thing can be done, let me tell you - it has been done.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2010

Friday 12 February 2010

George Lee: What Next?

It has been said that all political careers end in failure but some political careers last longer than that of George Lee. His decision to resign his Dáil seat and quit politics - a mere nine months after his landslide election on a wave of popular revulsion with the present government - was clearly unexpected. Then again, so too was his decision to throw his hat into the political arena in May 2009 and seek the Fine Gael nomination in the Dublin South by-election. What could have motivated his decision in each instance?

George Lee's foray into politics always had more the feel of a personal crusade than the usual huckstering. He was a man who wanted to shake up the system. He drew applause from all sides for his honesty, enthusiasm and integrity. He drew even more cheers when, during his maiden speech to the Dáil he referred to deputies who appeared to be sleeping! But making politicians look stupid is an easy game, especially when you're on the outside. Particularly when some of them just seem to be asking for it.

We may never know what really transpired over the last nine months that caused George Lee to throw in the towel. Some, especially his party colleagues have been quick to offer explanations nevertheless. "His ego wasn't satisfied by the reality of the job" is how one Dáil and party colleague described his predicament, a view confirmed by another who offered the somewhat softer assessment: "I think he probably missed the immediate impact of the 20-second soundbite on TV, that it's not the same when you're in politics."

So people are taking sides based on whether George Lee was right or wrong to resign. No one is asking if he was right or wrong to enter Leinster House politics in the first place. George Lee sought election because he wanted to contribute to the efforts to find a solution to the country's present economic difficulties. He seemed to think that Dáil Éireann was the platform from which he could sell an alternative approach to the Irish electorate and public. He resigned a mere nine months later because, he says, he "had virtually no influence or input into shaping Fine Gael’s economic policies at this most critical time".

The point that appears to be missed - by George Lee, but also by his champions and his critics - is that Dáil Éireann isn't really a forum where policy (economic or otherwise) is formulated or shaped. The primary function of the Dáil is to enact legislation to give effect to policies that are usually formulated elsewhere. It also facilitates the formation of a govenment, which comprises a Taoiseach and his cabinet, and keeps a watching brief on its performance. The role is akin to that of a kingmaker with no real executive function. That power lies elsewhere.

Ireland's system of governance falls into the parliamentary tradition. Other countries have what is sometimes referred to as an 'executive presidency'. The USA is one such example and usually cited as the most clear-cut, since they have complete separation of the executive and legislative functions of government. The judicial system is also separate but I think that that is the case in almost all countries that have attained a certain level of political development - correct me if I'm wrong.

Of course identifying two main trends (the parliamentary and executive presidency) does not exclude the possibility of certain national peculiarities and traits arising out of a country's history and traditions. Some countries retain vestiges of their history in the form of 'constitutional monarchy' for instance. And of course the Irish system is also steeped in history. Dáil Éireann is but one example of this.

Dáil is an Irish term that has a number of meanings. The English translation usually given is that of a 'meeting' or 'assembly' but it can also be used simply to convey a sense of togetherness (which some might interpret as cronyism) or it might even refer to an 'allocation, distribution or allotment'. The cynic would say that this is because the Dáil is where people meet to allocate sinecures and cushy jobs but another explanation is possible. The Dáil itself is not parliament but simply one tier of an tOireachtas which translates as 'deliberative assembly' in Ó Dónaill's Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. Thus it meets to consider, but does not actually formulate policy.

Of course An tOireachtas is also the name of an annual festival of Irish language, art and culture that takes place. It is not affiliated to the legislative assembly, but not unlike its political cousin, it could be described as a carnival of sorts.

A study of the orgins of 'parliament' is also instructive in terms of understanding it's function. The terms itself derives from the French word parlement, meaning discussion, from the verb parler - to speak. It might be inferred from this that parliament therefore is nothing more than a talking shop, which is what it has become to many, but this was not the original intention.

Typically what would happen is that The King would summon parliament to listen to what his subjects had to say. The King would listen but not necessarily speak or address any of the concerns raised there and then. More likely, when he had heard enough, he would adjourn to deliberate, either in private, or among his close inner circle. (Many countries still retain The Privy Council by the way). This also was how The King retained his power - by listening but not engaging in discussion he retained exclusive power to act. A strategy of keeping people guessing if you like.

If you've ever been part of a collective decision making process, you'll probably have twigged that the best way to push through an agenda is to ignore every objection, for as long as possible, until such time as it goes away or becomes unbearable. But unlike The King who summoned the original parliaments, who listened but didn't speak, modern day parliamentarians might be accused of speaking endlessly but never really listening!

Over time, in any case, this became an ineffective system of governance and in various countries, kings were either deposed or had their power drastically curtailed. Parliament therefore became a check on royalist absolutism. Even in countries like the USA, which didn't suffer these feudal trappings, it was still felt necessary to have a system of checks in place, so that The President didn't become an elected king.

Nowadays, when royalist absolutism has been all but consigned to the dustbin of history (except perhaps for one or two places) what should be the role of parliament? And not just parliament because democracy is supposed to mean 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'. That's a far cry from 'government of the people, by corrupt but elected cronies, for the purpose of who knows what?'

In the fallout from the resignation of George Lee, some have suggested that it's time for the formation of a new political force on the Irish landscape. While this would certainly be an interesting development, I just hope that those who might be contemplating such a move have better luck, and more acumen than George Lee. It's not enough to simply want to make a difference - knowing how and where this can be done is essential in the heel of the hunt.

Perhaps George Lee would have done better if he had joined Fianna Fáil?

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2010


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