Thursday, September 25, 2008

EU seeks to silence Libertas

In a mixed couple of weeks for democrats in Ireland and Europe increasingly concerned by the decline of democracy in Europe, there was much to give rise for concern. On the one hand, the rejection by European Parliament of the original text of the Parliament's Education and Culture Committee that would have effectively set in motion regulation, registration and ultimately censorship of political-blogs gave one brief hope that Brussels was coming to its senses. Such hopes were dashed by the decision by the leaders of the main EP political-groups to tell an EP delegation to ask the US Congress to disclose rumoured-Libertas funding in the US. According to Judith Crosbie in the Irish Times, "The European Parliament is to ask the US Congress about US fundraising for anti-Lisbon Treaty lobby group Libertas and will set up links with the Irish watchdog on referendum spending. The leaders of the parliament's political groups decided to take the action after MEPs raised concerns during a parliament session over alleged US funding regarding Ireland's referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. MEPs are concerned about the prospect of Libertas launching a campaign across the EU for next year's European parliamentary elections, as suggested by the group's chairman, Declan Ganley. The parliament has yet to decide whether its delegation to the Congress should visit the US to discover any information it may have on US fundraising or exchange letters on the matter. Graham Watson, leader of the parliament's Liberal group, said he supported contacting Congress because such contacts had proved useful when discovering the source of IRA funding in the US. The European Parliament wants to tell Ireland's Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) of information it might have of a European nature on Libertas funding. "We will be establishing links with Sipo. Anything gleaned from Europe, we'll send over to them," said an official. The parliament's leaders would "regularly and closely monitor the situation and return to the issue, in any event, in the light of any conclusion by Sipo or other Irish authorities", said a statement". Brian Crowley, Fianna Fáil MEP for Munster, said he told the other group leaders that Sipo was the appropriate body to examine Libertas's funding. Kathy Sinnott, independent MEP for Munster and leader of the parliament's independence/ Democracy group, said the delegation to the US could do better things than inquire about Libertas funding."

After the humiliation of seeing our politicians cowtow to Europe following our no vote by largely refusing to rule out either a rerun of a referendum on an identical text to the rejected Lisbon Treaty, or (Enda Kenny and Fine Gael being an honorable exception to this rule) parliamentary ratification of parts of Lisbon in the Houses of the Oireachtas, we can at least say that in the matter of Libertas funding, that the fact that not all our elected representatives have associated themselves with this latter-day Inquisition directed at dissent towards the Lisbon-model of European integration will be a source of relief, but the parties here are certainly not united in such a stance. Hardly a day goes by without Europe Minister Dick Roche muttering menacingly about the 'shadowy' origins of Libertas and its supposed links to the US military, most recently with respect to contracts in Alaska. The controversy surrounding Ganley's company, Rivada Networks, began during the Lisbon campaign, with vague accusations from the pro-Treaty side about links to neocons and the US military. What was not mentioned was the nature of these links, which pertained to emergency-disaster relief such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - hardly relevant to the foreign policy of George W Bush. Despite an almost one-dimensional fixation with the finances and activities of Declan Ganley's company and Libertas, Roche and the yes side have failed to make anything stick where he is concerned. The latest from Roche's website refers to what is described as a "loophole" in American Federal Procurement legislation "that allows military contractor's such as Rivada Networks Ltd to get contracts without any form of public competitive tendering, hardly an advertising and for either accountability or transparency. ". Someone should perhaps tell Minister Roche that if something is not illegal then it is not a crime, and that given SIPO has revealed his party to have only disclosed where 13% of its money is coming from, that perhaps his party should cease inhabiting an ethical-glass house before throwing stones. For the disclosure threshold beyond which donations to political-parties must be revealed is itself a loophole, and as such going by Roche's standards is also " hardly an advertising and for either accountability or transparency.". If you're going to talk the talk Minister, then your party should also walk the walk or Dún do bhéal.

But that should not let them off the hook. Having failed to defend Irish sovereignty either in the negotiations on the Lisbon treaty themselves, the subsequent referendum and in the case of most of the "Yes" parties their reaction to the brave Irish rejection of the Treaty on June 12th, they must now show themselves worthy not only in letter but also in spirit of the accolades of being the representatives of the people. For it is debatable whether the current complexion of Dail Éireann would be as now had last year's General Election been held in the aftermath of that no vote. Defenders of the thesis of representative as opposed to direct-democracy, including Irish Times writers Ruth Barrington and Stephen Collins argue that Oireachtas ratification of at least parts of the Treaty despite the rejection of the referendum by the Irish people is not undemocratic, as representative-democracy as embodied by national parliaments is an equally legitimate expression of democracy. But I beg to differ. Each EU member state has its own respective model of democracy. It is the norm across Europe that except in exceptional cases pertaining to national sovereignty and other areas, national parliaments can ratify treaties as they see fit - if in some cases - such as where national constitutions may be impinged on - this requires weighted rather than simple-majorities. But in the Irish context, direct-democracy has been an intrinsic and I believed highly-prized core principle of our democratic-model since 1937. It's detractors would do well to recall the fate of the Scottish Parliament of 1707, the Irish Parliament in 1800, and the French National Assembly in 1940, before recommending handing our politicians the constitutional blank-cheque such an absolutist adherance to "representative democracy" would give to them. For it was the 1937 Constitution that saved the liberties of the Irish people on scores of occasions over the past 71 years. As a constitution that was largely the workmanship of Fianna Fáil, it ill behoves Mary O'Rourke to be advocating circumvention of the result of the referendum that was ultimately a product of that Constitution. It's less surprising to hear such calls coming from Fine Gael figures like Senator Eugene Regan, who called for Oireachtas ratification with the intrument of a referendum being confined to issues such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Indeed it's ironic that it seems to be the leadership of Fianna Fáil, rather than Fine Gael, that seems the more inclined towards legislative ratification. It was, after all, Fine Gael that was the great defender of the 1922 Constitution, with its elitist proviso that constitutional amendments would be the prerogative of the Oireachtas to the exclusion of the prior requirement for binding referenda. In contrast, it is Enda Kenny, rather than Brian Cowen, that is courageously and stoutly defend the prerogative invested in the people by the 1937 Constitution that gives them a veto on constitutional changes or the transfer of sovereignty to supranational institutions. Can it be, following the Varadkar proposals on voluntary repatriation and the more positive proactive positioning of the party in support of the long-overdue reform of the public-sector, that Fine Gael is finally on the long road to making itself electable as a credible alternative party of government? I think so.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Demise of PDs an opportunity for Fine Gael/Libertas

The death of the Progressive Democrats, long envisaged for 23 years, has finally arrived. Last night's by all accounts emotional PD meeting to discuss the future of the party merely gave a stay of execution until October. It would seem that the party's four Oireactas members (Harney, Grealish, O'Malley and Cannon) were more at one on winding down the party than its councillors. But the party has lost prominent councillors in just over a year since the General Election, during which the party sailed rudderless for most of that time. With Mary Harney rejecting the poison-chalice of returning to the leadership she vacated in 2006 in favour of McDowell, and with such a long interregnum in a party none of its elected members wanted to lead, it is evidence that the viability of the party was gone, as was the stomach for the fight needed to soldier on in the context of a party-system that has. since 1921, frustrated all attempts by microparties to survive the tribal-pulls of the Civil War parties and, to a lesser extent, Labour. Indeed Labour itself came quite close to extinction in 1987, scoring only 5% of the FPV, but managed to hold only 12 seats, but which left it the fourth largest party in Dail Eireann until the PD's disasterous performance in the 1989 General Election, when its 14 seats were reduced to 6. It was always ironic that except in 2002, the PDs entered government when they lost seats, while departing it when they gained seats. And yet, given what has transpired last year and since, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that there are a lot of "what ifs" now echoeing in the minds of PD activists. What if Mary Harney had not re-entered government with Fianna Fáil in 2002? What if Des O'Malley had not announced his support for Mary Harney while Pat Cox was in Vienna? What if Liz O'Donnell had succeeded her, rather than the polarising Michael McDowell? What if they hadn't botched the 1997 manifesto launch on downsizing the public-sector and helping single-mothers who wanted to remain in the home? These questions are of course academic at one level, but they may also contain important lessons for other microparties that emerge, as they occasionally do (like Clann na Poblachta/Talamhan, Farmers Party etc.) about the balance to be struck between principle and power.

The fault for the demise of the PDs can only partly be laid at their door. Entering govt in 2002 when FF didn't need them and when their ability to implement their economic agenda (especially the wideranging privatisation in the 2002 manifesto) was almost nonexistent was a terrible mistake. They chose non-economic portfolios which changed how they were identified by the public from being associated with economic growth to the failings in our justice system and health-service instead. They allowed themselves to become FF's mudguards. FF treated their proposals for cafe-bars with open contempt, and procrastination on Aer Lingus privatisation for four years. McDowell alienated 2 sources of transfers before the 2007 election - FG voters annoyed that they didn't pull out of govt over Bertiegate, and FF voters annoyed that they showed signs of being unsure of whether to remain in govt with FF. FF voters are historically reluctant to transfer to parties perceived as hostile to FF. Much - though by no means all - of their economic agenda has been poached by FF and FG e.g. income tax cuts, some privatisation (though nothing on the scale the PDs wanted). This combined with the other factors helped these parties ween some "soft" PD voters back to those parties who were usually their natural political-homes anyway. A hate campaign in most of the print media - notably the Star. Part of this was a vendetta against McDowell for defeating them in the Citizenship referendum, while part of it was that the anti-FF press saw the PDs as the weakest link, whose destruction would prevent FF remaining in govt. Many microparties had their moment of glory at around 10% before fizzling out over a 20 yr or so period. The end of the Northern conflict undermined their appeal to voters attracted to anti-Sinn Féin rhetoric, while the Good Friday Agreement, supported by all the Dail parties, meant that the PDs were no longer offering a unique stance on the Northern conflict. Ironically, in this respect the party was a victim of its own success. As someone who voted for Colm O'Gorman in 2007, I have to say that I was nonetheless disappointed with the party-manifesto that year. Where was the far-reaching programme of privatisation of the 2002 campaign (including ESB and Bord Gáis)? And why is Harney trying to push through Risk Equalisation payments by the VHI's competitors in the health-insurance industry - something that surely flies in the face of the competition that the party always claimed to stand for? After the surrender to Fianna Fáil over café-bars, it looked to many voters that the party no longer represented something distinct enough from Fianna Fáil to be worth supporting. To paraphrase Michael McDowell they lost their radicalism and so became redundant.

The Left are already toasting the death of the party they love to hate. Fergus Finlay, who coined the phrase about talks with Sinn Féin not being "worth a penny candle", told George Hook on Newstalk that it was "good riddance" to the PDs, despite his admiration for some of its figures like Des O'Malley. SF Cavan-Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said "We may be witnessing the dying days of the Progressive Democrats and truly progressive people in Ireland will shed no tears over their demise.". But maybe they are celebrating too soon. It is arguable that what was rejected in 2007 was not neo-liberal economics per se, but rather the failure of PD ministers to implement them in their portfolios at Justice and Health. An Irish Independent poll published shortly before the election found a small plurality in favour of hospital-colocation. But Harney's laudible plan has taken an eternity to get off the ground, and still has not really done so in a major way. She will probably be remembered as the woman who sacrificed her party for the overriding goal of health-service reform, but there are questions to be asked as to why it took four years to negotiate a new consultants' contract, and whether it would have been delivered quicker in Coalition with a weaker Fianna Fáil that actually depended on the PD's for survival in government. No. What was rejected in 2007 was not neo-liberal economics, of which the only real element in the party manifesto was cuts in the bottom and marginal-rates of income-tax. to 38% and 19%. The reasons for the rejection of the PDs had nothing to do with economics, and everything to do with the poaching of their ideology on taxation, the lack of health-service reform, the inheritance of the mistakes of previous Fianna Fáil health-ministers in that department (including nursing-home charges) but which were blamed on Harney, notably by the vicious cartoon in the Irish Star portraying Harney as digging up a graveyard to make the dead pay for their nursing-home charges. The reality is that no party was really offering a neo-liberal platform to the electorate last year. McDowell seemed to vacillate between supporting the re-election of the Coalition with Fianna Fáil on the one hand, and supporting withdrawl on the other hand, and voters do not like feeling that their differing motives for voting for or transferring to a party are being manipulated for party-advantage. They saw through McDowell's spin, and while the party did not deserve what happened to it perhaps the leadership did. But there is still, I believe, a gap in the Irish electoral-market for an economically liberal party, and I trust in time it will arrive, whether in the form of a continuing shift to the Right in Fine Gael (signs of which include Richard Bruton's plan for a quango cull), along with support for an immigration policy that is fair but firm. The question is whether Labour would play a similar role to that of the Fianna Fáil statists since 2004 by stymying an attempt Thatcherisation of the Irish economy? In that context, I think the future of Libertas, with its support for economic freedom and the defence of democracy in the European Union, may be crucial in determining the future electoral-landscape in a state and electoral-system in which the politically-small is sometimes the beautiful. At a time when the public-finances are €6 billion in debt, the cost and inefficiency of the bloated public-sector, with monopolies spanning the electricity, to the gas, and bus-sectors, are again coming under the media-radar, notably in the Irish Independent which recently called for a large privatisation programme that could raise €8 billion euros. As we approach October's emergency-budget, it is imperative that Minister Lenihan remove this albatross from around the necks of the private-sector taxpayer. If he fails to do so, then others may have to offer the country the transition from Big to Small Government that it desperately needs in these choppy economic-waters.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

66% want immigration clampdown - poll

The Irish Examiner leads today with a poll on immigration, which it says shows conflicting atttitudes by the Irish people to immigration and integration. The poll, by Amarach Research,was conducted last week among a sample of 1,000 adults in the Republic. The poll finds that 66% believe we need tighter controls on immigration. Despite the call for a clampdown, 54% believe the country’s decade-long experience of mass migration has been good for the republic, with one in three saying it has had a negative impact. Almost six in 10 people, 59%, think the Government is not doing enough to integrate the new Irish, while 72% are worried about the impact immigration is having on the health service. A further 65% expressed similar concerns regarding education. 38% of respondents believe a future taoiseach or president of the republic will emerge from the descendents of immigrants, with 33% disagreeing. according to the survey of 1,000 people, conducted by Amárach Research. In it's editorial entitled "Integration of immigrants - A positive experience", the Examiner argues that "This period of immigration coincided with a period of unprecedented wealth, opportunity and nearly full employment. As everyone knows, those circumstances no longer apply and as unemployment levels rise there is a potential for tension. Our attitude towards immigrants may be about to face a sterner test than before.". The poll also shows a significant class, gender and age divide on the issue. Dubliners, higher earners and the middle-aged were more likely to suggest immigrants were integrated. 42 per cent were "a little worried" about immigration's effect on the education system compared to 35 per cent being "not at all worried", and 23 per cent "extremely worried". Asked about the health service, 39 per cent said they were"a little worried", 28 per cent not worried and 33 per cent "extremely worried". 48% of females said immigration was a good thing and 37 per cent a bad thing, with 58 per cent of men saying it is a good thing, and 30 per cent a bad thing. Women are less positive about the effect of immigration than men. Coincidentally, the Irish Examiner quotes more of the artificial hysteria of Fianna Fáil in condemning the proposals of FG Enterprise Spokesman and Dublin West TD that the State should fund the return of foreign-nationals to their home countries because of the economic recession. While the proposal was condemned by Thomas Byrne (FF) TD, who called it a "new low" and called for it to be withdrawn, it marks the beginning of what I hope will be a trend which, together with recent proposals on reform of the public-sector will make FG a viable alternative to a FF-led govt. Being more in touch with public-opinion on issues like this is an important part of being taken seriously as a viable alternative-govt party. Varadkar should stand his ground, and FG should back him up. It is not a racist proposal, but rather one that recognises that charity begins at home, and that a recession is not the right time to be exacerbating the difficulties Irish people face in finding work. For those of us - myself included - who oppose racism, it is recognised that the current free-for-all of unregulated mass-immigration are in fact risking strengthening it. Let us oppose racism through tighter controls, so as to avoid the circumstances such as job displacement which fuel it.

Sadly, the early signs point to the Establishment continuing to demonise those who attempt to quite legitimately debate the question of immigration-control and measures to protect the Irish labour-market in the context of skyrocketing unemployment - something that certainly calls into question the prospects for the survival of freedom of speech in this country. Integration Minister Conor Lenihan has accused Fine Gael TDs of attempting to create a “climate of resentment” against people who have come to Ireland to work.Mr Lenihan’s comments follow a call by Fine Gael TD Leo Varadkar for the Government to consider paying immigrant workers a lump sum payment of up to six months' worth of unemployment benefit if they agree to return home. “Leo Varadkar’s comments about migrants before a Dáil Committee are designed to create a climate of resentment against people who have come to Ireland to work,” Mr Lenihan said. He said statements had been issued by Fine Gael deputies in recent months that were of “huge concern” to him and that were “inflammatory and aimed at boosting their own profile at the expense of often vulnerable immigrants”. “The comments by Deputy Varadkar as a member of the Opposition front bench mark a new low in Irish politics and all the more so given that it appears to be a co-ordinated effort on migrant issues by Fine Gael,” the Minister said. Labour TD Sean Sherlock said Mr Varadkar's remarks were "nothing short of outrageous" and an "unwelcome lurch towards the far right" by Fine Gael. "Immigration has increased the population of Ireland, and in so doing, has increased demand for goods and services in this country, contributing in no small way to generating the economic prosperity we enjoyed in recent years," he said. Mr Varadkar asked the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment whether there was an opportunity to give three to six months' unemployment benefit to unemployed foreign nationals to encourage them to return to their own countries. In Spain, unemployed foreign nationals from 20 countries have been offered €18,000 to go home on condition they do not come back for three years. The Fine Gael TD’s remarks were described during the meeting as "very, very dangerous" by Fianna Fáil Meath TD Thomas Byrne, who said "voluntary repatriation is a new low by Fine Gael". Later, Mr Byrne said: "This comes in the dishonourable tradition of the British National Party. They are the only other party supporting voluntary repatriation." The number of such workers in Ireland is now 16 per cent of the total on the Live Register - exactly proportional to the numbers in the workforce.

So yet again, the opportunity to have a rational debate on the challenges of immigration is cast aside in favour of the failed mantra of "multiculturalism" and the portrayal of all foreign-nationals as victims (especially through their being termed "vulnerable") by the windbags of Leinster House. It is a sad situation that we are being denied a debate on the biggest societal change on this island for 400 years. Most of us are opposed to racism, and certainly that includes myself. But surely experience in other parts of Western Europe underlines the fact that racism tends to increase in a context where debate on the issue is closed down via self-censorship and the blind adherance to failed mantras and political-correctness. For example, I bring your attention to recent race-riots and gang warfare in the UK. Multiculturalism's defenders claim it will create a progressive society where the tolerance of cultural identity provides equality and opportunity for all. Positive discrimination within public institutions is supposed to engineer a change in attitudes, and result in a society comfortable with diversity. But in the UK, these practices have become divisive, creating animosity within the indigenous population. Former Tory politician, Matthew Parris of The Times has questioned the wisdom of culturally divided communities living side by side, and the natural inequalities and conflict this will naturally create. Divided ethnic communities where economic prosperity is in short supply, are always going to compete for wealth, and this competition will on occasion spill over into violence. The evidence from the UK disproves the Left's contention that multiculturalism reduces racism. Socially liberal multiculturalists will argue that inherent racism in society limits the opportunities of ethnic minorities, but surely multiculturalism “ by encouraging cultural division“ cements such attitudes. So if we are to make immigration a success it is right we should question the ethos of multiculturalism, which it could be argued is failing to create equality and social harmony. Many ethnic minority children are being failed by multiculturalism which undermines the social cohesion and productivity. Why are Indian children 20% more likely to succeed at school than Pakistani or Black children? Why is such inequality so evident after decades of the multicultural experiment? Holding up the richness and value of a culture is all well and good, but not when it's at the cost of unity and collective prosperity. Dianne Ravitch, the conservative US scholar and author, has argued that the celebration of Multiculturalism masks liberal/intellectual hostility towards the mainstream. While it took 50 years for the ethnic-minority populations of the UK and Germany to reach what I call critical-mass (10%+), it has happened in Ireland in a mere 10 years. In that context, it is important for the political-elites to wake up and recognise that if we are not to repeat the mistakes of previous countries of mass-immigration with respect to the labour market, multiculturalism, integration and unsustainable pressure on public-services, we must act now, rather than marching blindly into the abyss seen in France and the UK in the streets of Paris and Brixton. Those of us who oppose racism must ensure that our immigration policy reflects the needs of the Irish people and economy - not the leftist ideology that seeks to replace nations with "citizens of the world", or the fatcats for whom anti-racism is merely a flag of convenience behind which to hide an agenda that is actually racist because it exploits cheap foreign labour through a race to the bottom in pay and conditions, undermining both workers' rights and race-relations. We have hard realities we have to face, and the longer it takes for us to do so, the greater the risk that we repeat the mistakes of history.

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