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No long summer break from political debate

18 Jul

This week’s Broadsheet column was a defence of the oft criticisied Summer School season and an argument for more policy Irish think tanks, for for a Fianna Fáil aligned one in particular. Original column online here: Broadsheet.ie 

 


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At around 4.20pm on Friday last Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Summer recess. It is due to return at 2pm on Wednesday September 20th.

Cue the usual hollow complaints from the commentariat over TDs holidays and short Dáil sessions, with a few harrumphs from the Brussels side-line courtesy of Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly who tweeted that the EU parliament’s holiday will be 4 weeks shorter.

If this Dáil was actually processing legislation, especially the range of halfway decent Private Members Bills coming from backbenchers across the House, then there may be a basis for complaint. But, it isn’t.

To be fair, it is not as if TDs and Senators are about to head off to the Maldives or Marrakech. The Seanad is sitting this week, as are several Oireachtas committees, and they will take a shorter break than the Dáil and return earlier – and before you sigh that the committees don’t count, bear in mind that Sean Fleming’s Public Accounts Committee will be launching its report into the financial procedures at Garda College, Templemore at 2.00pm tomorrow.

However, the fact that the Dáil is taking a nine-week break, does not mean that political debate will be on hold for all that time.

The start of the summer recess also means the start of the political Summer School season. This week sees the MacGill Summer School in Donegal and it will be following a range of other summer schools, both large and small, including the  Parnell Summer School in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow in mid-August which will look at contemporary criminal, policing, penal and judicial policy and the excellent Kennedy Summer School being held in New Ross in early September which will look at a range of issues including Brexit.

While it is easy to dismiss some aspects of these Summer Schools are just the same folks talking at each other in various locations over wines of varying qualities, they still have a positive input into our policy discourse. They allow more discussion on the broader themes and issues and encourage more focus on policy and less on process – something that bedevils political commentary and debate the other 40 odd weeks of the year – including by yours truly.

The Summer School season highlights the dearth of policy discussion the rest of the year around. I am often struck by how few serious policy fora and think tanks we have here. While there are some, and they produce very good policy policies and encourage new policy directions, they tend to be from just outside the centrist spectrum, at either end: from the Hibernian Forum on the centre-right to the trade union backed Nevin Economic Research Institute. That is not to say that there no centrist fora, there are, but they tend to be sectoral or focussed on Ireland’s relationship with the EU.

It is as if the centrist parties should just look to their own limited in-house research teams and the civil service. While Fine Gael does have its Collins Institute, a quick look at the latest news section on their website suggests that annual activity is more based on a lunar calendar than a Gregorian one. The three most recent news items there are from May 2017, July 2015 and December 2014.

There is room for a significant centrist policy (big hint to Fianna Fáil) think tank and there are a range of EU institutes and fora, not to mention expertise, with which it could partner and co-operate. There is also a major issue on the horizon which it can help address: Brexit.

As I have said here several times, a lot of the discussion and focus in the Irish Brexit debate thus far has been on ameliorating and easing the most damaging economic aspects of Brexit, but there has not been sufficient discussion and exploration of the political dimensions.

One of those relates to the future of this island: as a whole.

One of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement – and one of the primary reasons why it received huge buy-in across the island – was that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland.

This was there to reassure Unionists that they would never be coerced into a United Ireland. It was also an assurance to the population that they were democratically sovereign and they alone could determine their own constitutional status. Yet, the Brexit result last year is about to change the status of the citizens of Northern Ireland not only without their consent, but expressly contrary to it and they are told, by the UK’s Supreme Court that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement do not apply.

This is a major change and it is getting lost in the understandably loud and noisy debate over the economic aspects of Brexit.

Brexit also changes our relationship with the EU. Up to now we have been one of two common law, English speaking countries in the EU with similarly structured economies and political systems. We have shared common interests and held a range of similar views on issues from Data Protection to Employment and Social Policy. We now face into a future in the EU Council without a key ally.

That does not mean a debate on our continued EU membership – but it does require some thinking on how we develop and advance that membership and that again returns to how that is expressed on and across this island.

There is plenty to think about over the coming weeks and months and while it is good to take some time away and recharge, let’s also us some of the time while the Dáil is not in session to commence some serious debates on what lies before us.

Ends.

 

ENDS  

I hate to admit it, but @JuliaHB1 and other #brexiteers may have a point, just not the one they think

12 Oct

Here is my Broadsheet article from Sept 28th regarding the calls for a second #Brexit referendum vote. I would love to be able to support the call, but I cannot. Experience of re-runs of Irish EU referendums tells me that this is not an option in the UK given the high voter turnout.

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questiontimeI have to confess that my heart sinks a little whenever I hear English Tories or English nationalists, like Nigel Farage, mention Ireland during their rants about the EU. The reference is usually patronising or condescending or – even worse – is given in the form of advice that would have us join them in their march back to a glorious era that never existed.

This is why my heart sank when Julia Hartley Brewer, a British Talk Radio host, Leave campaigner and former political editor, stated on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time that the EU had forced Ireland, and other countries, to vote again on EU referendums.

Her comments came during the course of a discussion on whether Britain might have another referendum on Brexit – a proposal put forward by the failed Corbyn challenger, Owen Smith MP or that the UK might have a separate vote on the final deal hammered out on the conclusion of the Art 50 negotiations, an idea put forward by Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats.

Though hearing Hartley-Brewer getting it badly wrong on the notion of the EU ‘forcing’ us to vote again made my heart sink a little, it sank even further when I realised that she and her fellow panellist that night Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (who looks like he is being portrayed by Joyce Grenfell) may actually have a point, just not the one they think.

Though I and other Remainers may wish it to be otherwise, the hard fact is that Ireland’s voting again on the Nice and Lisbon treaties is not relevant to the UK’s situation for one simple reason: turnout.

In the first referendum on the Nice Treaty (Nice I) in 2001 the turnout was just under 35% – the result then was 54% No: 46% Yes. At second referendum on the Nice Treaty (Nice II) in Oct 2002 the turnout shot up to just under 50% with Yes getting 63% and No dropping to 37%.

It was a broadly similar situation in the case of the two Lisbon Treaty referendums. In Lisbon I in June 2008 the turnout was 53%. No won by 53%:47%. At Lisbon II the turnout had again increased, this time to 59% with Yes now winning by 63%:37%

In both cases the turnout in the first referendum was low to start with, in the case of Nice I it was exceptionally low, just in the mid-30s, so there was a convincing argument to be made for a second vote, particularly when you felt that a second referendum would have a higher turnout.

This was not the case in the UK’s Brexit referendum. The turnout there was a whopping 72%. This is a substantial turnout. It is much higher that recent UK General Election turnouts, indeed you have to go back to Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory to find a UK general election turnout of over 70%.

The huge political risk you take by having a re-run second Brexit referendum in these circumstances is that you get a lower turnout. It is politically saleable to try to reverse one mandate with a smaller one?

To be clear, turnout alone was not the reason why there were re-runs of the Nice and Lisbon referendums. In both cases post referendum polling and analysis found that the main reason for voting “No” or abstaining was a lack of knowledge of either treaty. Both “Yes” and “No” voters were highly critical of what they viewed as a dearth of clear, accessible information on the treaty’s merits.

While the Remainers can clearly point to a lot of misinformation from the Leave side, not least the claims that leaving would mean £350 million extra per week for the NHS, they cannot yet point to any substantive research or analysis suggesting any changes in opinion.

Noted UK pollster, Prof John Curtice, reckons that there is little evidence of a “significant rethink” three months on from the result with those who voted Remain still convinced that they were right and likewise for the Leavers. Very few minds have been changed, though let us see if that remains the case as the details of the Brexit deal on offer emerge during the course of the next year or so.

The problem with all this abstract discussion on a second referendum is that it takes the focus away from the very real and tangible issues with the first result: most crucially that the Hartley Brewer, Farage and others do not want to honour the clear Remain majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Instead they want to use the votes of English and Welsh people to forcibly drag Northern Ireland and Scotland out of the EU against their declared will.

This is no small issue, yet it is receiving scant attention in the UK and, sadly, here.

Voters in both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted convincingly to stay in the EU, by much bigger margins that the people across the UK voted to leave. Many of those voters in Northern Ireland hold Irish passports and are thus also EU citizens, even if the UK leaves. Can that citizenship – and the guarantees and privileges it offers – simply be snatched away from them on the say so of 50%+ of voters in the south of England?

As people like Michéal Martin and Colum Eastwood have repeatedly said over the past few weeks and months; trying to drag the North out of the EU against its will ignores the layered complexities of the Irish political process.

It is a refutation of the basic principles of the accommodation achieved in the Good Friday Agreement and that is something that concerns all of us on this island.

We should be debating and discussing this now. We should be looking at the significant consequences of Brexit for our economy, for our trade – both North/South and East/West, our education system, out health service.

We should not allow the foot dragging by the British Government on outlining its terms of exit to stop us from forcefully setting out our concerns and our alternatives. We need the speedy establishment of the all-island political/civic forum I called for here at the end of June. I know the Taoiseach and his team messed up their first attempt to get the idea up and running, but they need to go again and get it right this time.