Varadkar’s Big Bad Data

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on September 24th and looks at the current government’s ongoing issues with grasping the critical importance of data and data privacy to our continuing economic growth and development. While the governments response to the Data Protection Commissioner’s findings that it broke its own laws in expanding the scope of Personal Service Cards shows a cavalier attitude to data protection, the total inadequacy of the states response to real cyber-security threats is frightening. The State must immediately given the Defence Forces a lead role in building cyber security capacity and give it the resources right now, including the ability to recruit and train the next generation of cyber security experts.

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Twenty years ago (last Sunday) the first ever episode of The West Wing premiered on US TV.

Though anyone who has ever served in government can confirm that The Thick of It or Yes, Minister are more realistic portrayals of life along the corridors of power, The West Wing still represents the ideal, the way we would like to think it is.

This is due, in part, to the excellent characterisations, but it is mainly down to the quality of writing. The dialogue not only fizzed, it was informed by actual policy debates.

There were prescient. Much of it is still cogent despite all that has happened in the intervening two decades.

Continue reading “Varadkar’s Big Bad Data”

A Coach and Horses to shift the hapless Minister Kehoe

This article appeared first on Broadsheet.ie on July 9th 2019. It again looks at the problems faced, caused and posed by the hapless Junior Minister for Defence 

Peter O'Toole
The late Peter O’Toole at the bar in the Coach and Horses, London

A few weeks back I discovered online that one of my favourite London pubs, the Coach and Horses on Greek Street in Soho is about to change hands. The pub is both iconic and historic – and not just because I’ve been swigging pints there on visits to London since the early 1980s.

It has been the watering hole of Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Louis MacNeice, Graham Greene and countless other journos, actors, artists and Bohemian hangers-on. The pub is just across the street from the offices of the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, and has hosted many of the Eye’s infamous off-the-record lunches in an upstairs private dining room.

The design and layout of the main bar was immortalised as the set for the play based loosely on the life of one of its most infamous denizens, the notoriously unsober Spectator and Sporting Life humourist, diarist and columnist, Jeffrey Bernard.

Continue reading “A Coach and Horses to shift the hapless Minister Kehoe”

Though it’s a f/t #Defence Minister we really need, a new MoS would be useful now

I have written several times about the developing crisis in Irish Defence policy-making and the impact this is having on morale and retention in the Irish Defence Forces.  In this Broadsheet post from June 11th, 2019, I suggest how swapping ministers of state might help in the short-term to start the process of addressing this crisis.

Kehoe parade
MoS Defence Paul Kehoe (from Defence Forces Flick A/c)

It takes a rare political talent to make the Irish defence brief controversial, yet the hapless Paul Kehoe appears to have somehow managed it.

Stories of declining morale, chronic low pay, skills shortages and personnel retention problems fill the airwaves, and still the crisis worsens. Defence force strength which should today stand at 9,500 has been hovering perilously below 8,500 for months.

The 9,500 figure is itself misleading. The 2000 Defence White Paper set the number at 10,500. The reduction in 2009 to 9,500 was only intended as a temporary measure, yet it has entered the political psyche as some fixed upper limit.

While very little of the blame for these crises attach personally to Kehoe, realpolitik dictates that the time has come for him to move on. Kehoe must go.

Continue reading “Though it’s a f/t #Defence Minister we really need, a new MoS would be useful now”

Only threat to military #neutrality comes from SF, Ming #FakeNews, not #EU #EP2019

Broadsheet 129 – They won’t have a winner some day

EU army SF

“Beyond the Fringe” was a 1960s British comedy revue that was seminal to the rise of British satire… well, according to Wikipedia, it was.

Even if you never heard of the show, you will know its cast. They were: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennet

The revue had lengthy sell-out runs in London’s West End and Broadway and introduced several classical comedy sketches. One in particular has been coming to mind over the past few weeks.

It opens with a group of obsessive devotees gathering at the top of a mountain. They are counting down to midnight and, they believe, the end of the world. Their shaman tells them of what is to befall the world and assures them that they will be safe. Meanwhile the individual followers sheepishly wonder about mundane things like who brought the tinned food… and the tin opener.

The countdown nears its climax. 3… 2… 1. [Spoiler Alert] There is silence. Nothing happens. Unperturbed, the shaman concedes “this wasn’t quite the conflagration I’d been banking on… same time tomorrow lads, we must have a winner one day”.

And so it is with Sinn Féin, Ming, Daly et al. With the same fixated zeal as the lads on the mountain they are once again predicting the end of neutrality. Mercifully, it is not nighty, though their incantations do seem to come around with a regularity curiously attuned to the electoral cycle.

Continue reading “Only threat to military #neutrality comes from SF, Ming #FakeNews, not #EU #EP2019”

Why @DefenceForces are a special case and deserve a far higher priority than govt is offering.

This Broadsheet.ie column is from December 5th 2017, it was written following the protest outside the Dáil by Army wives and families

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I want to look back at last week’s 24 hour protest outside Leinster House by the wives and partners of members of our Defence Forces and offer two additional perspectives, which may help illustrate why the Defence Forces are a special case and worthy of a far higher priority than this government is according them.

Before I get to those, it is worth noting why the protest was by the wives and partners. Under Defence Force regulations serving members of the Defence Forces may not make representations regarding any aspect of their employment, including pay and conditions, to third parties, including elected representatives.

Though this may seem a bit draconian, it does reflect the particular nature of their job. Soldiers cannot simply down tools, especially when those tools are often loaded, and go on strike – particularly when they are one of the key services we depend upon in emergency situations. But there is, or at least there should be a quid-pro-quo in this relationship.

Continue reading “Why @DefenceForces are a special case and deserve a far higher priority than govt is offering.”

A simple primer on Irish #Defence Policy

Here is another of my weekly Broadsheet columns. I am slowly catching up on reposting these columns here, I hope to have my site up to date over the coming week.

This one is from August 29th and offers a quick primer on understanding Irish Defence policy: www.broadsheet.ie/mission-creep-2/ 

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army

Though you may not have noticed it – there was, over the last few weeks, an attempt to start a public debate on Irish Defence policy. While the Irish Examiner, in particular, did its level best to get it going, the discussion soon fizzled out.

The reason why the debate never really got going may be due to the fact that we tend to only discuss defence policy in public in response to some significant event or, more frequently, to some outlandish and unfounded claim.

On the rare occasions that we have any debate on defence in Ireland, they tend to be either end of the extreme ranging from claims that we are abandoning neutrality, a claim made continuously since the 1970s, to questions as to why we even have a Defence Force.

Though there is a real and clear public pride in our Defence Forces, both at home and abroad, there is also a surprising paucity of knowledge about Defence policy.

With this in mind, I want to use this week’s Broadsheet.ie offering to put some basic facts about Irish Defence policy out there, in the vain hope that the next public debate on Defence may be based on fact and reality, not myth and assertion.

Let’s start with a few basics.

The Irish Defence Forces comprise the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service and should total 9,500 men and women. The current manpower figure as set out in a parliamentary reply to Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers, is just under 9100.

There are approximately 460 Irish troops currently serving overseas on a range of UN led and mandated peace-keeping and humanitarian missions. These include: 60 naval service personnel on the humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; about 210 troops on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon and approx 140 troops serving in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights in Syria.

Though these numbers are way down from the average of 800 plus personnel serving overseas less than a decade ago, it still represents a sizeable Irish contribution to international peace and security, which in turn contributes to our own national security.

We spend about €900 million per year on Defence, though the vast bulk (over 70%) is accounted for by wages and pensions. When it comes to value for money the Defence Forces lead the way. The reform and modernisation programme undertaken between 2001 and 2010 make it a model of how public sector reform can be done right. Productivity was increased, numbers were reduced and the savings were invested in vastly improved equipment and training.

Now let’s turn to the policy side. First and foremost, Ireland is militarily neutral. While this is usually defined as not being a member of a military alliance, it also means that we decide for ourselves how much we spend on defence and – most importantly – how, where and when we deploy our troops overseas on humanitarian and peace-keeping/peace enforcement operations.

This is done via the “Triple-Lock” mechanism of UN mandate, Cabinet and Dáil approval. Triggering this triple lock is required before 12 or more Defence Force personnel are deployed overseas under arms. This enshrines not only our military neutrality but our commitment to multilateralism and the UN.

We use the phrase UN mandated, which means that a UN resolution is required. Nowadays many UN mandated missions are not UN led, i.e. “blue helmet”, but rather led by regional organisations – such as the EU, The African Union, NATO etc – on behalf of the UN. This was the case in the 2008 EUFor Chad  mission, which was commanded by an Irishman, Gen. Pat Nash.

I was in the Dept. of Defence during the Chad/Central African Republic mission, which was established to deal with the crisis created in the region on foot of the Darfur famine. I saw how the Triple Lock was implemented smoothly and speedily. UN resolution 1778 was passed at the end of Sept 2007, Cabinet Approval was given in October, unanimous Dáil approval by the end of November and by December an initial deployment of Army Rangers and support elements were on the ground in Eastern Chad establishing the Irish Camp.

Any difficulties in deployment were not due to the Irish or the Triple Lock but rather to the frustrating slowness of other EU countries, particularly the non-neutral ones, to respond especially when it came to offering air and medical support to the mission.

Nothing I saw at those defence meetings in Brussels led me to think that an EU Army was a realistic possibility, leaving aside the fact that we have a veto (EU requires unanimity on common defence) on it and that the Irish Constitution (Art 29.4.9) precludes Irish membership of a common defence.

Speaking of air support brings me back to the Irish Examiner article mentioned at the outset. From my perspective this appears to be based on the inaccurate, if not sensationalised misreading, of an already inaccurate report.

I say inaccurate as the original material suggests that is not Ireland which has asked the RAF to protect our airspace from terrorist threats, but rather that it is the British who have asked for Irish permission to fly into our air space in the event of terrorist air attacks heading for Britain.

When viewed this way the story is not quite as sensational, nor is it the slam dunk argument for Ireland rushing out and purchasing a fleet of F-16s.

I am not absolutely opposed to our buying a few F-16s – though if we are going to go into the fighter aircraft market why not opt for some newer F-35s?

I am sure the Air Corps would be overjoyed to have them, though I suspect the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure might baulk at the tripling or quadrupling of annual defence expenditure necessary to keep these fighters in the air 24/7, especially when we consider the real and actual threat assessments.

So, let us have a full debate on defence (and foreign) policy by all means, but let us ground it in fact and reality.

ENDS

Are @AlanShatterTD and @EndaKennyTD out-Nixoning Nixon on #gsoc ?

Nixon in Oval Office with Haldeman and Ehrlichman
Nixon in Oval Office with Haldeman and Ehrlichman

In asking a High Court Judge to re-examine and review the documentation and material already available the Cabinet, and in particular the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and the Minister for Justice and Defence, Alan Shatter are attempting to out-Nixon Nixon.

Back in early 1973, as the scandal of the Watergate Break In and Cover Up began to break, the then US President Richard M Nixon, in conjunction with his advisers John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, devised a plan to get Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean to write a report for the President on Watergate that “basically clears the President and White House staff of involvement”. Their plan was that they could cite Dean’s Report as what they had relied upon and that they could blame Dean for deceiving them.

While Dean did initially agree to go to Camp David at the President’s request to write such a report, but he soon came to realise that he was being lined up as the scapegoat and decided not to complete the report. Nixon sacked him shortly afterwards, on the same day as he announced the resignations of Ehrlichman and Haldeman.

While the Government is not asking a retired High Court Judge to become is scapegoat, it does seem to be looking to get a supposedly independent review that it determines will verify its own jaundiced version of events.

How else can we interpret the fact that while the Justice Minister was indicating how the review would operate he announced that he had decided on the review as he had received a review of the Verrimus report from RITS, a Dublin based IT security firm, that concluded that there was “no evidence at all”.

So, even as the Minister announces the review he sets out his view on what it should, if not must, conclude.

This, as with Nixon’s Dean Report, is all about attempting to draw a line under a growing political scandal rather than getting to the core of what caused it: allegations of bugging at GSOC’s premises?

Why opt for such a limited review, reporting to the Justice Minister and with Terms of Reference set by the Minister instead of an inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry legislation?

Today’s Cabinet decision, albeit deeply flawed, runs counter to last week’s comments by both An Taoiseach and the Justice Minister and suggests either 1). A realization that the government’s spinning on the subject is not having the same impact now as it had at the start, and/or 2). Pressure from Labour members of the Cabinet growing tired of defending the Justice Minister.

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Background material on the Nixon/Dean Watergate Report

The timeline for Dean’s Watergate Report

March 20, 1973: In his conversation with chief of staff H. R. Haldeman about White House counsel John Dean’s phony “Dean Report,” which will say that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate conspiracy, President Nixon says: “[The report] should lay a few things to rest. I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da. Haldeman didn’t do this. Ehrlichman didn’t do that. Colson didn’t do that. See?”

March 22, 1973:  President Nixon tells his aides to ensure that the nation never learns of the political and financial machinations that surround the Watergate burglary from his aides under investigation: “And, uh, for that reason, I am perfectly willing to—I don’t give a sh_t what happens, I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else.” But he wants something on paper that he can point to and say he knew nothing about the Watergate conspiracy, and that he had ordered an internal investigation of the matter. He sends counsel John Dean to Camp David for the weekend to write the document

March 27, 1973: President Nixon orders senior aide John Ehrlichman to conduct his own “independent investigation” of the conspiracy, since White House counsel John Dean has not yet produced the results of his own “investigation”

Shatter and @willieodealive were right: There is only one Óglaigh na hÉireann

Apologies for delay in posting this column which appeared in the Herald just before Christmas (on December 18th)

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THE people of Belfast were forced to endure a trip back in time to the bad old days last Friday – courtesy of yet another dissident republican group.

In placing a bomb in one of the city’s busiest areas, this latest dissident collective showed a terrifying disregard for lives of the people in whose name they claim to fight.

Ironically, they attempted their vicious deed just two days before the 20th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration, the landmark joint statement from the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major that set the course for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Continue reading “Shatter and @willieodealive were right: There is only one Óglaigh na hÉireann”

Soldiers could lead the battle to reform public service

Irish troops serving the cause of peace internationally
Irish troops serving the cause of peace internationally

My column from tonight’s Evening Herald on how the reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past year could prove a model for public sector reform

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The first tentative step on the path to a possible Croke Park II deal was taken last week when Public Sector unions and management sat down together for preliminary talks.

While reaching any form of deal will pose difficulties for negotiators on both sides, the management side has a particularly difficult delicate balance to strike. Though their political masters in Cabinet may be signalling their support for a deal they also know that most Fine Gael back benchers would be just as happy if no deal was reached.

The public service is just one more issue that divides back-benchers from both parties, with many of FG’s newer intake of TD’s echoing the “small government” rhetoric heard from US Republicans and Tea-Partyers.

It is not an uncommon view in these difficult times. There are many siren voices around attacking the public service and portraying it as riding on the back of a shrinking private sector.

Sadly, the public service often leaves itself open to these onslaughts with daft examples of wasteful spending and bad work practises. But the danger lies when occasionally justified criticisms are distilled into a dogma.

Yes, the public service is in need of reform and modernisation, but the one dimensional demonizing of the entire public service we hear from some quarters will not help reform anything. Nor will the “everything is just fine as it is” defence we hear from various public sector unions.

Public service reform is possible without hyperbole or blood on the carpets. With the right management and leadership the public service is capable of reforming and modernising itself. I know, because I was there when it happened.

The reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past decade and a half is a model of how it can be done right.

The 2009 Bórd Snip Nua report found that the Defence Forces were the only sector in the Public Service to reduce numbers during the Celtic Tiger.

While the numbers working in the Public Service had increased by 17% between 2001 and 2009, the numbers working in the defence organisation actually fell by 8%, going from 11,808 down to 10,895 a drop of 913.

The reduction in numbers in uniform was reflected in a reduction of numbers of civil servants in the Department. These payroll savings were invested in better equipment and improved training meaning that the Irish Defence Forces could do more with less.

The negotiations were tough, but both sides recognised that it was in their mutual interest. While soldiers and officers do not have Trade Unions, they do have strong representative organisations: PDFORRA and RACO and a parallel conciliation and arbitration process that conducts it business quietly and effectively,

Perhaps the absence of outside influences, speculation and running commentaries, helped create the conditions for agreement – but not nearly as strong leadership, both political and military.

We should now be finding ways of replicating this progressive model. Before coming into office the Taoiseach’s last big idea on the Defence Forces was that it should be running boot camps for young offenders.

Doubtless he has abandoned this nonsense having spent two years seeing them close up, but their handling of the last round of barrack closures suggests that he may not yet have realised just how the Defence Forces be a model for public service reform.

ENDS

Are US Troops Qualified to Work on Peace Support or Policy Operations?

This was written for last Friday’s Evening Herald (January 13th) but, unluckily, did not make the cut.

What is it with some American troops? Why, even in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and other scandals, do they still seem incapable of acting with restraint and showing even basic common decency?

The video, shown on the TV news last night, of a group of US Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban insurgents once again raises the issue of their suitability to serve on peace support operations outside theUSA.

It is not as if the guys involved were raw recruits or conscripts: these were Marines: the supposed cream of the American military. Their motto: “Semper Fidelis” means always faithful, presumably that includes fidelity to their own three core values: Honour, Courage Commitment.

The Marine Corps manual says of the first value: Honour: “Respect for others is essential. Marines are expected to act responsibly in a manner befitting the title they’ve earned.”

Clearly the actions of the four Marines who appeared on our screens last night fell well short of that. Indeed that dishonour extends beyond the men filmed to include those who gleefully recorded the sorry episode, probably for future broadcast at private gatherings stateside.

None of this can be excused by the stresses and strains of their task or the coarseness of their environment. It is an example of dehumanising of the enemy; of treating those who are fighting against as less than human.

This is not an attitude that can be tolerated. It is not in the Afgahnis interest and neither is it in theUS’s either.

While the Americans serve inAfghanistanas part of a UN mandated NATO coordinated mission, their presence has a greater and wider significance.

The noted American playwright and peace activist Eve Ensler put it best after her 2003 visit to the region: “Afghanistan is a test case,”  “We may never recover the trust of the Muslim world . . . if theU.S.does not deliver security, substantial aid, and reconstruction . . . [and] fulfil our promises.”

Those who support the mission in Afghanistan (and I include myself in that) can point to a number of positives it has already helped achieve: new motorways and buildings; 4 million children now attending school, including many for the first time; a growing economy, a new constitution, and the return of more than 2.5 million refugees.

The action of the Marines not only undermines these achievements, it seriously dents the already precarious support of the Afghan people for the mission’s continuing presence. Their despicable actions potentially put their comrades at greater risk.

This sorry dehumanising episode again raises serious questions about the institutional ability of American troops to serve on peace support or quasi policing operations in regions or communities with different cultures and traditions.

It is not something new. I recall a mid rankingUKofficer recounting his experience with American officers under his command on a multi-lateral mission in sub Saharan Africa. He told me that he had a tough time even getting them to take off their mirrored sunglasses when talking with locals.

He told me of his frustration in having to constantly tell the Americans that this was vital to build up trust with the locals. The local culture demanded that you be able to look into someone’s eyes when they spoke with you. You have to treat those you are there to protect as your equal, not as your inferior – and not as your enemy.

It is something that now comes instinctively to our troops serving overseas. Perhaps this is in part due to our sense memory of being a former colony. We can empathise with the plight of the local communities and the hardship they endure while retaining our impartiality and commitment to our mission.

It is something that can be taught. Significantly it is taught here at the UN Training School in the Curragh Camp. The UN School runs United Nations Military Observers and Staff Officers courses.

While the offending Marines will probably be drummed out of the army, perhaps their senior commanding officers might be sent to the Curragh for some basic lessons in how to get their people to start showing respect.