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Archive for June, 2010

Sam Smyth and the PDs

23 June, 2010 1 comment

Over the past two Mondays, Sam Smyth presented a two-hour program on the Progressive Democrats. It was fine to watch and reminisce, but it was lacking in crucial areas. The narrative of the program was too much driven by the choice quotes from some of those interviewed. These were certainly interesting to hear, Charlie McCreevy never failed to amuse and we saw how little love there was lost between Michael McDowell and Liz O’Donnell, from his account of her dislike for constituency meetings to her description of his proposed party constitution as Mugabesque. But there was a little more to the party than that.

PDlogoTiming was the biggest problem. The first hour covered the years 1985 to 2002, the second hour the years 2002 to 2008. Even given the time for the revelations of Operation Teatime, the discussions on a merger between Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats that took place in 2004, there wasn’t a good reason when assessing the party as a whole to give such disproportionate time to the period when Michael McDowell when at his strongest point within the party. Sam Smyth is, of course, quite good friends with both McDowell brothers, Moore and Michael. There were times when it seemed that not a week went without either one or the other as a guest on the Sunday Supplement. One of the things that drew me to the party was how often I found myself in agreement with McDowell so often, and his naming of Adams, McGuinness and Ferris as members of the Provisional Army Council on the program.

But the party was much more than that, and even when I joined I was attracted to the party’s history and the spirit of 1985. Maybe there should have been a third hour. The scene in the 1980s should have been set. The commentary merely stated that Des O’Malley was expelled for disagreements with Charles Haughey. Would it have hurt to have mentioned the nature of these disagreements, to have spent a few minutes on the heaves against Haughey during the 1980s? To have given footage of the New Ireland Forum report in 1984, which Des O’Malley supported along with Fine Gael, Labour and the SDLP? And what sort of documentary on the PDs could neglect O’Malley standing by the republic in 1985, when he spoke out in the Dáil against the sectarianism in Fianna Fáil and their opposition to the government’s bill on contraception, which led him to be expelled from Fianna Fáil for “conduct unbecoming”. More could have been made on the state of Irish politics at the time, with high rates of taxation and public spending, and why it was that Michael McDowell saw fit to write to Des on the night he was expelled to discuss forming a part.

Then on the party’s first term in government, the program focused on questions like why Mary Harney didn’t get a seat at the cabinet rather than what she was noted for at the time, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the elimination of Dublin’s smog as Junior Minister for the Environment.

The program did not capture the party’s power and influence in that first period of government, that caused so much resentment in Fianna Fáil. During the 1990 presidential election, after Brian Lenihan, on “mature recollection”, changed his story of his phone calls to the Áras in 1982, the Progressive Democrats insisted that he be dismissed as Tánaiste. Michael McDowell was soon after to attack Pádraig Flynn on RTÉ Radio when he attempted to criticize Mary Robinson’s conduct during the campaign “as a wife and as a mother”, remarks which ultimately swung the campaign in Robinson’s favour. The party managed to veto Jim McDaid’s appointment as Minister for Defence in 1991, and then brought down Haughey in 1992 when Sean Doherty revealed him to be responsible for tapping the phones of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold. The chronology as shown was also a little off; Reynolds’ “temporary little arrangement” remark dates from 1989, not 1992, as it seemed from how it was portrayed.

I don’t mean here to write a full account of the role the Progressive Democrats played in Irish politics, just to highlight a few points where this program was lacking, particularly in the earlier years. A shame, because there is a story there, which will probably not be documented again for a while after this attempt. There could also have been a better analysis of the reasons for its ultimate demise and fall in popularity, even as its policy outlook was adopted as the mainstream. And a nice coda would have been a mention of the success of former Progressive Democrats at the 2009 local elections. The party deserves an account played for more than just the laughs and the sensationalism of some of the interview clips.

Edit: Line on “mature recollection” corrected.

Perry v. Schwarzenegger – Gay marriage rights on trial

Today in California, one of the most significant debate on whether gay and lesbian couples should have equal rights to marriage is coming to a conclusion. This is the federal case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which is at the stage of closing statements from both teams, which is hoping to overturn Proposition 8, which passed an amendment to the Californian constitution banning gays and lesbians from marrying under the Californian Constitution. This was passed on 4 November 2008, the same date Barack Obama was elected president.

When I first heard of the case last summer was being taken at a federal level, I was a little wary. I felt that given this would eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court, and that given the delicate balance of the Supreme Court, it was likely that Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing voter, would ensure at least 5-4 against the plaintiffs, and set back the case of marriage equality for a decade or so. Many of the groups who had campaigned against Prop 8 felt similarly.

Now, after the close of hearings,  I’m more optimistic about the benefits of the case. It made news because it brought to together the conservative Ted Olson and the liberal David Boies, who had been on opposing sides in Bush v. Gore in 2000, jointly representing the plaintiffs, two couples who had failed to get married during the period where it was possible for them in 2008. They were backed by the newly formed American Foundation for Equal Rights, which had on its board John Podesta, former Clinton White Chief of Staff and President of the Center for American Progress, and Robert Levy, President of the Cato Institute, one of the leading libertarian think-tanks.

Considering the proceedings of the court to date, I would not be surprised if the case was ruled in the plaintiffs’ favour, given the weak evidence and reliance on research from anti-gay activists like George Rekers who were over-compensating for their own repressed homosexuality. But even if it were to fail, and to fail again on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, good will come from the nature of the evidence presented.

If it does fail, it will probably not be opposition’s case that allowing any couple to marry would undermine the state’s interest in encouraging marriage for the benefit of children, or that the institution of marriage in society would in some way be weakened. If it fails, it will most likely be because of a judgement that as the people believed there was a rational basis for denying marriage rights, the court is not in a position to overrule them.

The benefits of the case, whatever the outcome, is threefold. On the one hand, it has provided the most thorough setting in which the arguments of both sides have been scrutinized, and the fault lines and weaknesses highlighted. Whatever the next forum for this debate, it now must take place at a more informed level. Secondly, the symbolic effect of the legal team and its backers matters. The right of gay couples to marry is being seen less and less as a matter of left against right, of liberals against conservatives. For Levy and Podesta to co-author an op-ed in the “Marriage equality for all couples”, will make more American start to question their preconceptions on the issue. As would Ted Olson article in Newsweek earlier this years, “The conservative case for gay marriage”. Finally, the lives of the four plaintiffs will seem familiar in their ordinariness to many: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier together ten years and raising four boys, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo nine years, all in very conventional careers.

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The long overdue Saville Report

16 June, 2010 1 comment

The publication of the Saville Report yesterday marked an end for many in Derry to years of waiting to be vindicated, for it to be clearly stated on the public record that the 14 protesters shot dead on 30 January 1972 were innocent and had been unlawfully killed. The publication yesterday was followed by a humble apology from David Cameron:

But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day – and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly. The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry.

This is a significant admission of culpability on the part of the state in the actions on that date, and from the reception to the report and the state in Derry itself is a sign that it is one more step in the process of healing.

This report should also act a reminder to those of us who would condemn the actions of the IRA during that period. It is, of course, just to condemn those who took up arms against their fellow citizens, and the vindictiveness and the intransigence of those in the higher ranks of the IRA for many years, including the current leadership of Sinn Féin. And tribute must be paid to those leaders of nationalism in the SDLP, Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Eddie McGrady, Mark Durkan and others, who consistently sought peaceful, constitutional and conciliatory approaches to settlement.

But in the context of Bloody Sunday, and perhaps more particularly of the Widgery Report which initially followed it, in which the army was exonerated, and accused of having “bordered on reckless”, that so many young Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland felt so alienated from the institutions of the state, with such a report that embodied the arrogant attitude that the state could do no wrong. At this distance, we should at least be able to comprehend and appreciate the part the British Army played in escalating the division and conflict in the years of the Troubles.

But most importantly now, while acknowledging the hurt of the past, Northern Ireland needs to move on to governing itself effectively, and it is thankfully managing to do so most of the time given the context of events like this.

Image from CAIN

Yet another confidence motion

15 June, 2010 2 comments

If it wasn’t for the Fine Gael leadership challenge, few would even have paid much notice to today’s motion of confidence in Brian Cowen, which was going to pass in his favour one way or other, and certainly be next week, no one would have remembered anything bar perhaps the odd witty comment. This is why, despite the good story it makes, it’s not actually that much of an issue that Richard Bruton’s challenge to Enda Kenny has this unfortunate element of timing. What matters is that between now and the election, the public is periodically reminded of the findings of the Honohan and the Regling-Watson reports, and why Fianna Fáil has lost the moral authority to be re-elected and claim to be able to manage the economy.

I also don’t really get this obsession with persistent confidence motions, with the withdrawal of pairings, in some vain hope that a random Fianna Fáil backbencher will fail to go through the government lobbies. The government has far lost the effective support of only Joe Behan and Finian McGrath. Even those who have publicly claimed a lack of confidence in Brian Cowen like John McGuinness, and those who have resigned the government whip, like McDaid, Scanlon and Devins, consistently go through the lobbies to back the government. Enda Kenny tried the same stunt after the local and European elections, in an attempt to find faults in government cohesion, which resulted in greater unity and common purpose between the two government parties. If the government really looks like it could fall, if it clearly loses support of enough of those independents, then go ahead and test confidence.

This might also have been what forced Kenny’s hand in asking for Richard Bruton’s resignation. As he explained yesterday, he didn’t feel he could question the confidence in Cowen while he didn’t himself have confidence in the man sitting next to him. Enda Kenny’s decision in this regard made this a plain choice between Fine Gael led by Enda Kenny but without Bruton or those Ivan Yates yesterday on The Frontline described as the best and the brightest on the front bench, and Fine Gael led by Richard Bruton. If that’s the choice, there’s only one option.

Can Enda Kenny continue as leader?

14 June, 2010 6 comments

Does Fine Gael need a change in leadership to hope to lead the next government? No, but it might still be a good idea.

Whether or not Richard Bruton decides to challenge Enda Kenny’s leadership of the party at the parliamentary party, Fine Gael has the policies at hand to convince people that we should lead government. We will win based on policies, such as NewEra, which should be sold for what it is, a plan to improve our competitiveness by introducing a business orientation to the provision of services like broadband, water and energy, or NewPolitics, which will reduce the scale of our government institutions while increasing accountability and accessibility. We should convince people on the basis of the positions we have taken over the years, whether in opposing elements of social partnership like benchmarking, or in the past two years, taking a case-by-case rather than a populist approach to government actions. Here Fine Gael should be seen favourably against Labour. Fine Gael supported the guarantee of bank deposits, but while opposing that bailout of bondholders. Fine Gael supported the Croke Park deal with the trade union leaders, something Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party couldn’t take a stand on until Jack O’Connor had given the word that it had SIPTU support.

As I have written before, Enda Kenny has been a very good leader in electoral terms. At the 2002 general, when the party fell to 31 seats, some commentators spoke of a continual demise in the party’s fortunes. Within two years of Kenny’s leadership, the party had bested Fianna Fáil for the first time, beating them at the European elections in 2004. He led the party to 51 seats in 2007 and then Fine Gael became the largest party at a local level in 2009. This is an incredible record for his eight years of leadership to date.

But even after all that, Enda Kenny might not be the best man to lead the party into the next election. We are facing a contest primarily between Fine Gael and Labour, and Labour have gained ground. Even if we can win some of this back, to find ourselves ahead of Labour again, the ratio in seats between the two parties after the next election will be crucial. In ways, by their commitment to many of the elements of social partnership through their trade union links, Labour is simply proposing more of the same. It is important for the country that Fine Gael has a very clear advantage over Labour.

It is unfortunate to say it, but despite his good work internally, in bringing many good candidates into the party and forward to electoral success, Enda Kenny is not popular nationally, and particularly in Dublin. He is not disliked, many simply do not see him as an alternative Taoiseach. We have to be realistic and wonder how much of the fortune the party has had in the polls was due to our own people and policies, and how much was because we were seen as the most likely alternative to Fianna Fáil.

This is not just about Friday’s Irish Times/MRBI poll, or the last Sunday Times/Red C poll, which showed the party stagnating in support. There have been internal mutterings about Kenny’s leadership for a while, reflecting large sections of the general public. These rose to prominence after the resignation of George Lee, but no one in the parliamentary party wanted to give him credit for deciding the fate of the party leader.

RBrutonI do believe the party would be stronger nationally led by Richard Bruton, provided the parliamentary party gets behind him fully were he to succeed Enda Kenny. He does command confidence and respect, of a sort which the Irish people now desire. This should not be seen as a sign of internal division and rancour, as the party has successfully avoided since 2002, but rather as our best strategic decision when facing one of the most important elections for the country in recent decades. In all likelihood that before the next election, there will be a three-way leadership debate. Richard Bruton would be seen as a fresh face, and his command of economics would be reassuring in that event. The parliamentary party have to face this action head on, and not let it linger. Even if Enda Kenny were to come out of this continuing as leader, it would put the matter publicly behind the party.

One way or other, this needs to be resolved this week, resolved decisively and put to rest. And most importantly, we can’t let this lead to continuing divisions in the front bench into different camps after this week.

If the Middle East were a gay rights issue

13 June, 2010 3 comments

It’s not. But if it were, the balance would lie with Israel, the most liberal of states in the Middle East, whether in civil liberties or in fostering a strong economy. While there is no process of civil marriage for any couples in the state of Israel, marriages performed by others are fully recognized, whether those married by religious authorities within the state, or by other jurisdictions, and since 2007, this has included gay couples. While the United States is still pondering the consequences of allowing gay men and women to serve in the army, the Israeli army now has a good record of acknowledging its gay soldiers. This week as ever, Tel Aviv held its annual gay pride parade. There are a few openly gay members of the Knesset, Israel’s popularly elected parliament.

Which is why the decision of the Madrid gay pride parade to ban a delegation from Israel is highly questionable. A spokesperson for Tel Aviv, Eytan Schwartz, comments “We invited the organisers of the gay pride event in Madrid to join a march this Friday in Tel Aviv, the only place in the Middle East where you can be gay in public. They would be able to talk to Arab gays who travel here secretly because they would be murdered at home if they revealed their sexuality.”

It’s not that the good record of Israel on this and certain other issues should exempt them from criticism, in either their international actions or other internal policies, but I find some in the gay rights movements conflate their grievances on different issues. At the recent protest here, Labour LGBT marched against Israel’s actions. Even aside from the irony of their flag being captured near that of Hamas, organizations that shares few values in common, I wonder why they would not have marched simply as Labour, as Labour Youth or on behalf of an international committee of the party.

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Rational optimism

7 June, 2010 5 comments

Last week, I attended a lecture by geneticist Matt Ridley, hosted by the Irish Skeptics Society. I have before read his books The Red Queen and The Origins of Virtue, explaining the genetic origins of human instincts and society. Politically, he is a proponent of free trade and small government, having written for The Economist from 1984 to 1992, and he served as non-executive chairman of Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007. His understanding of science and human nature leaves him open to the accusation of an attempt to justify his politics, but it is not with Ridley that we’ve first seen a convergence in views on the market and evolution. Charles Darwin saw the parallels between the simplicity of natural selection and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, while Friedrich Hayek saw the same processes of emergent order in nature as in many human endeavours such as the market, language or societal customs, none of which were ever formally instituted.

Ridley’s thesis is that what makes homo sapiens fundamentally different from all other species is our capacity to trade. Recent studies in the genome code have shown that even our closest relatives, homo neanderthalensis, probably had language, and excavations have shown that they had burial customs, but no neanderthal tool has been found more than two hours from where it was made. Of course, even if we have been trading as a species for 120,000 years, the acceleration of the benefits of trade only began to take off in the relative recent past, some time in the mid-eighteenth century. As a sign of the improvements to the common man from trade in those years, Ridley compared the situation of Louis XIV of France, who had nearly 500 people to prepare food for him, to any of us today, who have hundreds of people working for us, if we want to think of like that. Once we pay them for what we want, what difference is it to us that they’re also working hundreds of other people too?

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