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I have my doubts about Enda Kenny’s emigrants’ votes plans

13 Mar

Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues. Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.

Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.

There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.

Moves to repeal to External Relations Act, which gave the British Crown limited recognition around foreign relations, i.e. Irish diplomats were formally accredited by the King, were already afoot before Costello even came to office. In late 1947 Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government started preparing a repeal bill, but work on this was halted by the February 1948 election.

At least Costello was able to announce something which he could immediately legislate for and see carried into action within a reasonable space of time. Within eight months Ireland was out of the Commonwealth), in Enda’s case he has just announced plans which may not come to fruition for another 8 years (never mind 8 months) – and only then if they are passed in a Referendum, which is no absolute certainty.

We must wait a few weeks more to see the detail of the Governments proposals on extending voting rights in Presidential Elections from 2025 onwards to Irish citizens living outside of the Republic. From what the Minister of State for the Diaspora said on Radio this morning it appears that the Government intends to publish a range of options rather than a specific plan, which suggests that this whole adventure may not even be as planned and prepared as Costello’s 1948 one.

According to Minister of State McHugh there are an estimated 1.8 million citizens outside the State and a potential electorate of 1.87 million in Northern Ireland. To put this in context the total electorate eligible to vote at the October 2011 Presidential Election was just 3.2 million (On the day just 1.8m (56%) of them chose to vote).

While it is likely, if not certain, that Enda Kenny will neither be Taoiseach nor leader of Fine Gael by the time the referendum comes around, his shadow will hang over this and let’s not forget that Enda has had a penchant for starting referendums that he cannot win.

Will this be another one? I personally hope not, but I must admit that I am far from thrilled or enthused by what I have heard from the Taoiseach and his Ministers over the past few hours. Surely such a major constitutional change should be accompanied by detailed research and argument, not followed along by broad range of options for consideration to be published a month or so later.

While I can see some merit in Leo Varadkar’s description of the proposal allowing for the transformation of the Presidency into one for the whole Irish nation, highlighting the fact that Ireland has become a global nation via its diaspora, won’t we also be effectively limiting the Presidency to just a symbolic, ceremonial role? Though they are not often exercised, the Irish President does have important constitutional functions, are we perhaps diluting those for what it effectively just a gesture?

I also worry about how the referendum campaign make shape up. As we have seen in past campaigns, indeed as Leo Varadkar has observed: referendums are “by and large” never what they are supposed to be about and they can often turn into a votes on “extraneous issues… or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border poll – with the focus falling not on the wider diaspora or on the positives of giving Irish citizens in the North a formal recognition in our political process – but on worse aspect of the North and the prospect of allowing a load of hard-line DUP voters (and others) have any kind of say in the South.

Public attitudes to the North down here as not always as positive and welcoming as we would have ourselves believe. A recent poll for RTE by Dr Kevin Cunningham’s Ireland Thinks found a very mixed appetite for a United Ireland among voters in the Republic, particularly when it comes to the costs of re-unification. It roughly found that that voters in the Republic split three ways with one third being in favour, one third against and one third undecided.

That said, Brexit has pushed Irish re-unification way up the political agenda for all parties North or South: not as an absolute inevitability, but as an increasingly likely consequence of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Re-unification needs to be seriously considered now, not as some rhetorical wrap the green flag around me slogan, but as a real and viable political option. This is something that needs to be thought through seriously, which is why Micheál Martin’s announcement today that Fianna Fáil will soon publish its 12-point plan to prepare the way for unification of the island is so welcome.

We need to start talking and preparing for unification by strengthening the economic, political and educational links between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While these could help re-unification, even if that were not to come about, they would still be mutually beneficial.

Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop for the debate on giving votes for citizens North of the border.

For the record, when it comes to votes for Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction my own preference would be to look to Leinster House rather than Áras an Uachtaráin and follow the French model by having a constituency in parliament (either in the Dáil or Seanad) voted for exclusively by Irish citizens living outside the Republic, in fact I would suggest two such constituencies: one for Irish citizens living in the North and one for Irish Citizens living elsewhere.

As it stands today, while I am inclined to vote what Enda Kenny announced in Philadelphia, I am not so enthused as to go out campaigning for it – on that score, I remain to be convinced. Over to you Leo or Simon.

IMG_7982

Debating this column on RTÉ’s Late Debate – video clip below

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.

Pro-EU sentiment across #Ireland should be fostered via all island Forum #brexitresult

1 Jul

puckoonThis is my Broadsheet “Mooney on Monday” from Monday piece from June 27th on how the Irish Government (and politicians) must act in response to the UK’s Brexit vote.  

There is a new (though not uncritical) pro-EU majority across the island that should be encouraged and fostered via a re-establishment of the Forum on Europe. There must not any a return of form of border across the island.

The original online version appears here: www.broadsheet.ie/return-of-the-hard-border/

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For as long as I can recall it has been a central tenet of Unionism that the status of Northern Ireland should not change without the political consent of the majority of the people living there.

Yet, that it precisely what is set to happen over the coming years, with senior members of the DUP cheering it on

Despite the fact that a clear majority – some 56% – of the people of Northern Ireland who voted, including large numbers from both traditions, stated that they wanted to remain in the EU, their wishes are about to be ignored. It seems that a majority in the North is only a majority when the DUP is a part of it.

Thursday’s referendum result has changed things dramatically for the North and for the whole island. There will be the immediate implications, including many of the ones for which the Government has prepared, as set out in its contingency plans published last Friday.

But there are others, two of which I would like to set out briefly here.

eastwoodFirst, is the integration of the economic interests of communities across this whole island. As the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said:

“…there can be no return to a physical border across this island. There must remain freedom of movement for people, goods and services across Ireland… we must ensure that any border is only operational around the island of Ireland, not across it.” 

This last point is vitally important. Though the Brexiteers, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Teresa Villiers, dismissed any suggestion of implications for the border during the campaign, it is clear that there will.

If and when the UK eventually leaves the EU that border would potentially become a frontier between an EU State and non-EU State. This is ominous as the EU is already looking at ways of increasing security at its external boundaries, as evidenced last week by the European Parliament’s LIBE committee vote to “systematically check all EU citizens entering or leaving the EU”

There is an overwhelming economic, social and political case against resuscitating the 499km border between the two parts of this island as an international boundary. We have not spent decades of painstaking negotiation to break down barriers for them to be risen higher by a battle for the leadership of the Tory party.

The EU has been an important, though unheralded, part of the peace building process. Between 1995 and 2013 the EU spent €2 billion on promoting reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border counties. But it has done more than that. It has provided a supra-national cross border framework and support that has avoided any major policy cleavages across this island.

Rather than having the EU border across this island, let it run around the island with the customs and border controls sensibly located at ports and airports.

But we need to go further. We need to recognise that despite differences in identity, that Northern Ireland has and will continue to have a great deal of economic and social common interest with the Republic. To give expression to this common interest the Irish Government to needs to fashion an all-island EU strategy and use its seat at the Council of the European Union to champion the interests of Northern Ireland, particularly the border regions, along with the interests of the 26 counties.

The government should start reaching out now to civic society across the North to become its connection to the EU and should formalise these relationships, perhaps initially through re-establishing the Forum on Europe on an all island basis.

Second, is the loss of the UK as a valuable EU ally. In two or three years’ time we will no longer have the UK to help us act on a brake on EU measures of which we disapprove. Given our similar structure and similar outlooks, in the area of social dialogue for example, our two governments have – regardless of political hue – worked together. During the recent discussions on the introduction of an EU wide system of Data Protection, Ireland and the UK worked together to make significant and sensible changes.

But the UK has opted to go and so we need to look for new allies. We need to look to the smaller EU states who would share our concern at the excessive influence of the larger states, but also to the other like-minded nations on these islands. To this end an Taoiseach should be reaching out to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the coming weeks to see how Ireland and Scotland could work together in our mutual benefit as the fate of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the EU unfolds.

Enda may have no choice but to start talking with Nicola Sturgeon, as she seems to be the only leader on the neighbouring island with anything even approaching a plan for the future.

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Ehh.. #SocialMedia alone not to blame for coarsening of political debates

27 Jun

JoCoxFlowersThis is my Broadsheet opinion piece from June 20th, written in the aftermath of the horrific murder of labour MP, Jo Cox. broadsheet.ie/ad-hominemphobia/


As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.

Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.

There wasn’t.

Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.

Incensed by Fine Gael claims that he was too supportive of Chinese representation at the U.N. and that he had chosen to attend a U.N. meeting instead of the funeral of Pope Pius XII, Aiken, who was Foreign Minister at the time, fumed:

He [Deputy McGilligan] is a low type who would climb on the body of a dead Pope to have a crack at Fianna Fáil.

Can you imagine the memes if someone said that today? But blaming Social Media alone for the eroding of civility in public discourse, as some have done in recent days, is to miss a bigger point.

Of course there are armies of irresponsible anonymous online warriors out there ready to pour a stream of bile and abuse on anyone who disagrees with them or points out that their heroes have feet of clay.

They are on both the left and right. Indeed, some of the most illiberal vitriol can come from those styling themselves as liberal, but whose social media output is anything but.

There are lone wolves and there are organised hoards. Our own domestic example of the hoard are the Shinner-bots, a virtual battalion of anonymous trolls (with the emphasis on ‘anonymous’).

Within minutes of Gerry Adams being criticised online for his disgraceful ‘Django’ tweet, the Shinner-bots were insulting and lambasting anyone who dared to question the actions of the dear leader. Their goal: smother the critics by saying and posting anything necessary o shut down the discussion and drive their opponents offline.

Sadly, politicians and journalists, particularly female, come in for equally appalling treatment on social media. The attacks on journalists are probably more pernicious, as the aim is to influence their reporting not by weight of facts and debate, but by simple bullying.

But the point to remember is that the vast majority of people do not post or talk about politics on social media. Just in the same way as the majority of the people who vote for an individual TD do not contact them by email, letter or phone.

Most people are part of what Richard Nixon (OK, not the first name to leap to mind when talking about open dialogue) termed: “The Silent Majority”, the people who are following events, but who are not protesting, speaking out or expressing their political opinions beyond the ballot box or the odd discussion at home or in the pub.

Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio. It is a factor, particularly the facility for anonymous posting which certainly has helped the erosion of mutual respect in discussion, but there are other significant ones, including the dumbing down of political debate.

This dumbing down is practised by politicians and journalists alike.

In the 1968 U.S. presidential election the average candidate sound bite used on the TV evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, that had shrunk to about 7 seconds.

The trend was not limited to broadcast media. During the same period the average quote from a candidate appearing on the front page of the New York Times went from 14 lines to about 6.

We now do politics as if it was a skills test on a reality show: Your task is to set out how you will sort out Irish healthcare in 30 seconds… explain the rational for the UK remaining the EU in 140 characters.

Couple this rush to simplification with the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix. In the days before social media, talk radio and rolling 24-hour news, politicians and journalists alike had the time to consider their responses and the space to expand on them.

Political analysis and political responses are now expected be immediate, hurried and brief. But what is the virtue of the immediate short response, be it in a radio interview or online?

If expecting a Minister to give their immediate gut response to a particular issue is now the norm, then how can we slam others for doing the same online, when they do it under their own name?

 

 

The problem with #EUref campaign, is the problem with British politics #Brexit #VoteRemain

20 Jun

BrexitThis piece first appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website on June 14th. Note that I wrote this piece a few days before the horrific murder of Jo Cox, M.P.

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Shortly before polling day in last year’s Marriage Equality referendum one of the Irish national daily newspapers ran an opinion piece by a marketing/messaging expert evaluating the Yes and No campaigns to that point.

Though he had several criticisms of those of us on Yes side and even suggested that the Yes campaign was putting the outcome in unnecessary doubt, the subtext to his article seemed to be: this would have been a whole lot better if he had been running things.

I mention this now just in case anyone thinks that the observations I am about to make here about the poor state of the UK’s In/Out debate are intended in the same – if only they had asked me – vein.

They are not. Having worked on the winning side in several referenda from Lisbon II to Marriage Equality and from the Good Friday Agreement to Seanad Abolition, I know how difficult they can be and how each referendum is different from the other.

We have a particular familiarity with the referendum process in the Republic. This is not due to some fetishist love of them, but rather because we have a written Constitution which can, under Article 46 of the Irish Constitution, only be amended by a referendum. Ratifying EU Treaties such as Lisbon, Nice and the Fiscal Stability Treaties has required making changes to Article 29 (on International Relations) to facilitate Ireland’s ratification.

We know how it can often seem that the campaign is about almost every issue bar the one on the ballot paper and that forces outside the campaigns are dragging the focus away from the matters at hand.

That said, it is hard to imagine a referendum campaign that has been as bad and confused as this one. Yes, the individual campaigns have made errors and have adopted messaging strategies that seem unfocussed and discordant with voters concerns, but these errors go nowhere near explaining the mess that is the UK’s EU referendum.

To borrow a phrase from the late Sir Geoffrey Howe:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. 

There is a problem with the conduct of the EU referendum campaign, because there is a fundamental problem with British politics – namely, the big gaping hole in the centre of it. There are no big beasts, big ideas or big concepts among the current leadership on either side of the House of Commons. In its place is a political void, populated by bland assemble with no hinterland beyond the confines of Westminster.

It is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions in the campaign so far, particularly from the Remain side, have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke.

With a few exceptions, the current crop of Conservative, Labour and LibDem political leaders have failed to impress. They have either been absent, like much of the Labour leadership, or been insipid like Brexiteer, Chris Grayling or plain wrong like Penny Mordaunt. The few bright points from the current political generation have come from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon.

Referendums on complex issues need plenty of advanced planning and strategizing. They also need long lead in periods to allow the froth and irrelevancies to be exposed and blown away. Cameron’s strategic approach to this referendum, not least his convoluted pre campaign negotiations with EU counterparts and his assertion that he would have no compunction about recommending “leave” if he didn’t get the deal he wanted, left the scope for meaningful preparation in tatters.

The problem though is that strategy may not mean the same thing to Prime Minister Cameron as it does to others. As Hugo Young remarked in Michael Crick’s documentary “Boris and Dave”, strategy is something Cameron thinks will get you through to next Monday.

The result is that Cameron has allowed the rise of UKIP and disquiet among his backbenchers to compel him to holding a referendum which his poor preparation and planning has allowed to descend into a squalid slanging match of petty claim and counter claim with no real debate on the UK’s EU membership.

A stunning indictment of the Prime Minister’s ‘strategy’ is the fact that an Ipsos Mori survey published less than a week ago (and conducted in April and May) shows that the British public is still woefully ill-informed on the facts and realities of the UK’s EU membership. British people think there are three times as many EU immigrants in the UK than there actually are and they massively overestimate the proportion of Child Benefit awards given to families in other European countries. The actual proportion of UK Child Benefit awards going on children living abroad in Europe is 0.3%, but 14% of people think that its 30% and a further 23% think that its 13%.

Did no one around Cameron think to survey public attitudes a year or so ago and get a picture of the perceptions and beliefs of the people they were hoping to convince? If they had; then they could have tackled these wrong perceptions head on and tried to correct some of them long before the campaign proper began.

In failing to prepare and plan, Cameron has encumbered his allies on the Remain side from even before the campaign started. The gross error has been compounded by the way in which the coverage of the campaign has focussed more on the future of the Tory party and the Blue on Blue battles.

The next few days will be crucial for Remain, if it is to win – and I still expect it will. It needs to sharpen its message and redouble its efforts – it also needs to realise that it cannot solely depend on the current generation of Westminster denizens to get this over the line, it must look to more trusted and well regarded figures.

There is some good news for Remain in the Ipsos Mori survey. 51% of those surveyed predict that Remain will win, while less than half of those planning to vote Leave believe they will win. I mention this as there is some evidence from the U.S. to suggest that asking people who they think will win is a better indicator of the result than just asking them how they will vote.

In less than 10 days we will know either way… And then the real debate can start.

ENDS

 

 

 

 

Download #seanref #seanad information booklet here…

26 Sep

Download the Seanad Information Booklet produced by Democracy Matters!

Seanad Reform Information Booklet

 

Powergrab

Why @simonharristd makes the case for a #seanref #No vote much stronger #Seanad

18 Aug
The Seanad Chair

The Seanad Chair

As a firm believer in Seanad reform – and consequently a trenchant opponent of Seanad abolition – the Sunday Independent’s Millward Brown poll showing the No to Abolition side gaining further momentum is gratifying.

The past few weeks have hardly been great for the No side. Fine Gael has been pretty active on the airwaves over the Summer break, while Sinn Féin’s opportunistic decision to campaign for a Yes, having vehemently opposed the Government’s proposal in both the Dáil and Seanad, hasn’t helped the No cause either.

All this makes the increase in the pro Seanad reform level of support all the more re-assuring. Not that the poll suggests that the campaign is done and dusted. Far from it.

More than almost any other, this Seanad abolition policy, is the lone brain child of Enda Kenny. Though there seem to be no research papers, discussion documents or policy positions he can produce to justify the origins of this initiative, he is the man behind it and he has more to lose by its defeat than anyone else.

While Labour nominally favours abolition, its TDs and Ministers can reasonably see their policy obligations as fulfilled by the holding of a referendum. Don’t expect to see many of them working too hard for a Yes to abolition vote. Indeed, as the Labour Chief Whip has indicated, at least half the Labour parliamentary party may actually work for a No vote seeing it as the best way to secure a popular mandate for Seanad reform.

One of the two authors of Labour’s 2009 position paper on Seanad reform, Junior Minister, Alex White has not commented on the issue much, while the other author, Joanna Tuffy TD has indicated that she will be campaigning for a No vote.

The worrying shift in the poll numbers make it necessary for Fine Gael to up the ante over the weeks ahead.
Given that the main shift has been in the group who describe themselves as favouring reform expect to see Fine Gael focus its attentions there and try to convince them that a Yes vote is a vote for reform.

We already had a glimpse of this approach last week via its neophyte Wicklow TD, Simon Harris’s speech at the Parnell Summer School.
Harris advanced the argument that abolishing the Seanad counts as reform and gives power back to the people as it means the single remaining chamber of the Oireachtas: the Dáil will be 100% elected by the public.

Harris’s reasoning seems to hinges on the statistic that the number of people registered to vote in Seanad elections, under current legislation, is around 156,000; about 5% of the approx 3.1 million entitled to vote at the February 2011 Dáil election.

What Harris misses, however, is that this 156,000 (Councillors, Oireachtas members and NUI and TCD graduates) is defined in legislation – not the Constitution. Everyone in the North and South could be given the right to vote with the passing of an Act by the Dáil and Seanad. Indeed the Seanad has already voted for such a piece of reform with the Second Stage vote on the Quinn/Zappone Seanad Reform Bill.
The extension of the Seanad franchise to all is now completely within the gift of Deputy Harris’s colleagues on the government benches.

The only real obstacle to such a real reform is the Taoiseach’s obduracy in insisting on Seanad abolition instead of reform.

Though not central to the argument it is worth noting that the 156,000 figure is probably an understatement as it just counts the NUI and Trinity graduates who have registered to vote. Many 100s of 1000s more are entitled to vote by virtue of their graduation.

The other problem with Harris’s reasoning is the idea that the answer to existing disenfranchisement is more disenfranchisement. It defies all democratic principles to propose removing someone’s voting rights when you have it in your power to extend them.

If you were to apply Deputy Harris’s quirky logic to the campaign for women’s suffrage a century back you would determine that the way to ensure equal voting rights for all was to remove the vote from men so that the two genders were equally disadvantaged.

The very legitimate criticism that not enough people are entitled to vote in Seanad elections is properly addressed by giving everyone the right, not by removing it.

I would hope that Deputy Harris’s espousal of a position that is the absolute antithesis of reform is informed by loyalty to his party leader and desire for advancement rather than by belief in the argument itself.

If it is the former then the case for reform is all the greater, if it is latter then it is time to worry.

Ends

#Seanad: an early analysis of the campaign issues so far #seanref

23 Jul

TNT24.ie asked me to take a quick look back over the issues emerging so far in the Seanad referendum campaign. As a protagonist on the Seanad Reform side, I do not claim this to be an impartial observation, but I have attempted to make it as fair as possible. 

The Seanad Chair

The Seanad Chair

Just over eight weeks ago Democracy Matters, the civic society group advocating Seanad Reform rather over abolition, was launched. A week later, in Government Buildings, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore published their proposed amendment to the Constitution which, if passed by the people in about eleven weeks time, will abolish Seanad Éireann following the next election.

While the Seanad referendum campaign has yet to start in earnest: it has still been an eventful eight weeks with several shots fired in anger by both sides. We are already seeing some of the key lines of argument and contention emerging between the pro and anti campaigns. The debate, thus far, has seemed largely to focus on:

  1. Cost
  2. Scale
  3. Relevance

This has been to the advantage of the government side abolitionists so far. The discussion so far seems to have been on the government’s terms with very little real exploration of the No side’s reform alternatives. Nonetheless, the No side have had some success punching holes in some of the government’s case to date.

Costs: This has quickly emerged as an area of contention between the two sides. Fine Gael in particular has been focussing its attention of its claims that abolishing the Seanad would potentially save the State some €20million a year. This claim has been contested by several people on the No side, including Fianna Fáil, Democracy Matters and several Senators – including some Fine Gael and Labour ones. They put the figure at €10million or below

Fine Gael says its figures come from the Oireachtas Commission and offers the following breakdown on the €20m figure:

Total direct costs of running the Seanad of €8.8m (Gross), including

  • members’ salary (€4.2m);
  • members’ expenses (€2.5m) and
  • members’ staff costs (€2.1m)

€2m in annual pensions costs relating to the Seanad.

The additional indirect apportioned pay and non-pay costs of supporting sections of €9.3m:

  • ICT (€1.9m);
  • Superintendent (€1.6m);
  • Procedural sections (€2.8m) and
  • Other support sections (€3m).

Not that Fine Gael always used this figure. At one stage it was suggesting an annual saving of €30 per annum, but this was subsequently slimmed down – to a figure of around €10million. In June an opinion piece appeared in the Irish Times advocating abolition under the name of the then Fine Gael back bench TD Paschal Donohoe. It did not use this €20million figure, but rather suggested the €10m per annum one saying: “…at least €50 million over the lifetime of one Dáil term. Over five Dáil terms, with pension costs and expenses included, these savings alone would have us more than halfway to paying for a national children’s hospital.”

Reform advocates point to the January 2012 testimony of the outgoing Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan who estimated the gross annual saving from abolition would be less than €10million. If you take into account that at least 30% of that €10million goes back to the Exchequer in taxes, levies and VAT, the real annual cost of the Seanad to the taxpayer is probably between €6 million and €7 million. The €2 million pensions cost would continue for all former members and might likely increase for the foreseeable future with 60 Senators being made redundant in one fell swoop.

As for the indirect costs the Oireachtas has said that it is not possible to estimate the net actual savings and advises there would be substantial increases in pension costs and redundancy payments.

The government does not mention the estimated €15+million cost of holding the referendum. This is based on the government’s own figures for the costs of the Referendum on the Protection of Children held on the 10th November, 2012.

The whole debate on costs is probably moot. As Senator Professor John Crown has pointed out, Minister Brendan Howlin has stated that money saved from Seanad abolition will be redeployed to Dáil Committees. So there will be no net savings to the Exchequer.

Scale:The government’s next big argument for abolition is that Ireland is too small a country to have a two chambered (bicameral) parliament and to have as many national politicians as we have.

These lines has been trotted out many times with the Taoiseach and Ministers making lots of references to such similarly sized places as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand.

Reformists say that there is no direct correlation, between the size of State and parliamentary system. China with a population of over 1.3 billion has a single chamber (unicameral) parliament while the parliament of Saint Lucia (population 170,000) is bicameral.

They argue that bicameral is the norm for common law countries, such as ours – regardless of size. Indeed world’s wealthiest nations are mostly bicameral: of the fifteen countries with the highest GDP only two – the People’s Republic of China and South Korea – have a unicameral parliament.

As for the comparisons with Scandinavian countries, you are not comparing like with like. The overall structure of these Scandinavian political systems is very different from ours. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden local government is at the heart of the political system. In Sweden, for example, there are three tiers of government. These local governments can set their own local income tax. As for the numbers, contrary to having fewer politicians all these countries have more.

 

Local Authorities

Councillors

Denmark

98

2,500

Finland

304

10,000

Norway

423

12,000

Ireland

31

949

 

 

Relevance: Launching the government’s referendum proposal; back in June the Taoiseach questioned the relevance of the Seanad saying that modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system originally designed for 19th century Britain.

Putting the factual error on 19th century Britain element part down to the rhetorical over exuberance of his speech writer (perhaps the same one who thought Lenin had visited Ireland and met with Michael Collins), it is a theme frequently mentioned.

Does much of the question mark over the Seanad’s relevance stem from how it is elected – mainly by other politicians?

Government just defeats Seanad attempt to refer abolition to Constitutional Convention

Government just defeats Seanad attempt to refer abolition to Constitutional Convention

If so, could it not be addressed by extending the franchise for the Seanad and allowing every voter on the island – North and South – the right to vote in Seanad elections?

The method of elected the 43 vocational Senators is set out in law, not in the Constitution. It would not take a referendum to give every existing (and future) voter the right to vote in a Seanad election. Every voter could decide on which panel they wished to exercise their vote: Labour, Culture & Educational, Agriculture, Industry & Commerce and Administrative and vote accordingly. Everyone would get one vote – no more multiple voting.

With this one simple act – achieved by legislation – the government could do more to address the Seanad’s relevance and the issue of Oireachtas reform than with any number of referendums.

The new, reformed Seanad would be a positive response to the fiscal crisis and loss of sovereignty. The global crisis was exacerbated in Ireland because public policy and economic dogma went unchallenged. Regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.

Rejecting abolition and giving ourselves a new reformed Seanad is about ensuring this doesn’t happen again.

ENDS

Poll results: Worst Minister in Government

8 Jun

Last weekend I ran a poll under PR STV on the excellent www.opavote.org website to select/elect the worst Minister in Government. I closed polling a few minutes ago.

Many thanks to all those who took the time to vote. I ran this poll to see how well the site performed.

139 people voted and elected Dr James Reilly with 78 votes on the final count, beating Alan Shatter and Éamon Gilmore. http://www.opavote.org/results/1667002/0

Count

Results in Tabular format

1

First count as a bar chart

Where votes were tied (for an elimination) the one to be eliminated was picked by reference to their first count vote, where they were tied on first count is was by random selection

Interestingly both Michael Noonan and Simon Coveney received zero votes on the first count – which prompts me to shortly run a poll: Who is the best Minister in Cabinet (I may run that poll on a slightly different basis and seek the top three rather than just the one best)

 

 

#LE14 changes expose the big weakness in Government’s #Seanad Abolition case

31 May

Phil HoganOn Thursday last the hopes and political aspirations of many hundreds of aspiring and existing City and County Councillors were either dashed or revived with the publication of the new local government electoral boundaries.

Within seconds of being posted online the reports and maps containing the details of the new wards and local areas were being downloaded by political junkies and local election hopefuls across the country, looking to see how the new boundaries would impact on their community.

While these changes, reflecting shifts in population measured at the last Census, are always anxiously awaited, this review had a particular significance as it had been heralded by the Environment Minister as important next step in the Government’s programme for local government reform. Unlike previous reviews this one had a specific goal of improving balance and consistency in representational ratios in local government.

This has been an issue for many years with huge variations in the size of local council constituencies between Dublin and many rural areas. While someone running for election in Dublin City would need 2,500+ votes to secure a seat, someone else running in Leitrim or Roscommon might only require 900 or so votes.

In order to redress this imbalance the Government decided to set terms of reference that reduced the ratio in certain rural areas and reduced it in Dublin. The net effect was that Dublin and other major urban areas get more councillors and many rural areas get less.

The net effect of this rebalancing coupled with the Government’s already stated policy of scrapping Town Councils is a reduction in the number of council seats from 1,627 to 949 and in the number of local authorities from 114 to 31.

This is a significant reduction and it is not going down too well across the country.

While much of the analysis of the review and the changes has understandably focussed on this particular aspect, there is another area which is also worth considering, in the contexts of the Government’s plans to propose the abolition of the Seanad in a referendum later this year.

In scrapping the town councils and reducing the number of local elected representatives so dramatically; have they – to use a phrase from a bygone Fine Gael era – just shot their own fox?

Over the past few weeks and months Fine Gael has been claiming that Ireland does not need a Seanad or second parliamentary chamber based on its size. They have been particularly eager to draw comparisons with a number of the Nordic countries, pointing out that they only have one Chamber and that their average number of national parliamentarians is 160. They even put this claim on their Seanad Abolition posters saying that its time that we too had “fewer politicians”.

The problem with this assertion is that it is just plain wrong. The comparisons Fine Gael try to make don’t work because they compare apples with oranges. They compare bicameral (two chambered) parliaments with unicameral (single chambered) ones and shriek with terror that the bicameral ones have more members – well, of course they have. They are two chambered.

What Fine Gael don’t tell you though is that this is just half the picture. While countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark do not have an upper house of parliament, i.e. no Senate, they have far more powerful, advanced and resourced systems of local government instead. That is how they maintain the checks and balances essential to a proper democracy – balances this Abolition proposal will eliminate.

The statistics country by country are quite impressive:

  • Denmark has 98 local authorities and 2,500 local Councillors.
  • Finland has 304 local authorities and just under 10,000 local Councillors.
  • Norway has 423 local authorities and 12,000 local Councillors.

The most impressive one by far is Sweden. It has a whopping 50,000 public office holders.  In other words 1% of the entire Swedish adult population (ie between 18 and 80) is a politician.

Over 3,500 of these public representatives serve on regional council governments. There are 20 of these councils based on Swedish counties. But these are not our Irish county councils – these councils control local schools, health services and have the power to raise their own taxes. Below this regional government tier there are about 46,000 local Councillors running their own local municipalities.

Sweden has approximately twice our population. So to match the Swedish level of public access and participation we would need to create an additional 20,000 + elected positions. Even before Fine Gael put up a single poster we already had fewer politicians per capita than Sweden or any of the Scandanavian countries.

But Fine Gael has such a cock eyed view of its own logic that after the changes introduced by this government:

  • Ireland will have 31 local authorities and 949 Councillors.
CIMG0509

The courtyard of the Folketing (Danish Parliament)

Doesn’t this run counter to their argument? Surely the way to end elitism is to create more opportunities for access and participation – not less!

Doesn’t this expose and even widen a hole in the Government’s Abolition argument?

The Nordic countries may not have Senate, but they have a sound reason for not needing one. Their systems of government and administration are considerable more devolved than ours, with the Government and parliament retaining less centralised control over day to day services than we do.

In practice this means that the scrutiny and oversight we need to conduct in a Senate can be done by them at the local government level.

The Danish ambassador to Ireland, Niels Pultz, explained this approach in a recent column for the Irish Independent:“Another important fundamental in Danish politics is the division of labour between the national parliament and the local municipalities. The philosophy is basically that issues of importance to the daily life of citizens are best taken care of at the local level. That goes for primary and secondary education, social services, health, child care, local roads, water and waste management.”

If the government seriously believes that it can move our parliamentary system to resemble the Nordic model is it not going completely the wrong way about doing it?

ENDS