Quick note on Harneygate

As much as I dislike Mary Harney - and boy, do I dislike her - I'm finding myself fairly disgusted with the calls for her step down for getting her hair done on the public purse.

It's not that I think the expenditure was justified. But I can't recall anyone saying that Bertie should step down when it was revealed that more than the average industrial wage was being spent on his make-up. People said it was excessive, certainly. But his position wasn't held to be "untenable" because of it.

You can't separate this hullaballoo from gender issues. Women in the public eye are relentlessly judged for their appearance, Harney more than many others. There is a really nasty undertone to some of the comments being made in the blogosphere about this. Women who consider standing for election know full well they'll be subject to the same excruciating level of scrutiny for their hair, their clothes, their weight. Don't think for a moment this isn't a contributing factor to the under-participation of women in politics.

Harney should resign, of course. But I've always said that. She should resign because of the millions of taxpayer euros she's giving away to developers at the expense of the public healthcare system. That's the important issue, not the fact that she - like the Taoiseach and all male office holders - has an excessive personal appearance budget.
My head's buried pretty deeply in textbooks these days, but I did think this item was worth drawing attention to:

Alistair Darling will make a high-risk bid to lead Britain out of recession tomorrow, when he is expected to cut VAT and entice the British people to go on a pre-Christmas spending spree.
The cut is expected to see the rate drop from its current level of 17.5 per cent

Meanwhile, of course, down here in the Free State, VAT is set to go up from 21 to 21.5% as of Monday week.

Should do wonders for the "don't shop in Newry" campaign, huh?

In other Blueshirt news,

it seems that little Terence Flanagan managed to fill only about a third of the thirty minutes alloted to him to speak on the Electoral Amendment Bill in the Dáil today.

He was the first opposition speaker to participate in the debate. I guess that's what happens when you have nobody to plagiarise ...

Quick note on "pairing"

I'd imagine that few people, other than anoraks such as myself, had any idea what Enda Kenny was talking about when he announced that Fine Gael would refuse to "pair" with the Government over their refusal to allow a debate on the economy.

The Times helpfully explains that:

Under the vote-pairing deal, opposition TDs absent themselves from votes if a minister – with whom they have been “paired” cannot be present due to official business.

I'd just like to make it clear that it is not the case that pairing occurs only when a minister is away on official business. In fact, Fine Gael have quite willingly engaged in this practice when backbenchers have been away for personal reasons. They may be valid personal reasons, but so what? The point of pairing is to prevent important state business from grinding to a halt, which is something that all parties (at least theoretically) have an interest in. If the ruling parties can't get enough TDs elected to ensure their bills never fall due to too many non-official absences on their part, it's not the role of the opposition to give them a leg up.

And if you want to know how I know that FG (and others, incidentally, but never Sinn Féin) have engaged in this practice, it's because occasionally the list of "official pairs" inadvertently finds its way into my clutches.

No sex please, we're Irish

Ah, the irony. Only yesterday over at the Cedar Lounge a contributor drew a rather smug distinction between the US and this country on the basis of the public role of religious extremists – over there, we were told, they are “political movers and shakers” while here they are confined merely to “prayer crusades”. My immediate reaction, as noted on the linked page, was to point out the flaw in that argument from a non-partitionist perspective. And then I went to have a look at today’s papers and found these news items from well below the border: 750 pornographic DVDs seized in Dublin and Labour calls for laws to fight sex shops.

Let’s look at these one at a time. The first article tells us that the DVDs were seized “as a result of an ongoing Community Policing Unit investigation into breaches of the Video Recording Act of 1989”. Yes, you read that correctly. A Community Policing Unit investigation into porn videos. In Dublin 2. Honestly, have the community police there no better use of their time? Maybe going after the tourist-muggers in Temple Bar? The gangs that hang round ATMs on Grafton Street waiting to distract you and grab your cash? The bicycle thieves on George’s Street? If the residential areas in that part of the city are anything like mine, I’d guess there are a few social housing estates whose residents have all but given up phoning the police when there are problems because the response is so thoroughly inadequate it isn’t even worth the effort. Well, now we know why. Maybe instead of reporting break-ins, drug dealing and cars on fire, they should tell the Gardaí there’s a porno outside.

The second article tells us that those champions of progressive, liberal values the Labour Party are shocked – shocked! – to find that not only do such DVDs exist, but the shops that sell them are subject to the same rules as any other shop. Not good enough apparently; they should have to apply for a specific change of use so that the wishes of those residents who would patronise such a shop can be vetoed by those residents who think they shouldn’t.

Labour’s Joe Costello is particularly outraged that two adult shops were able to open across from churches in his constituency. That’s my constituency too, and I know at least one of the shops he’s referring to, and frankly the fact that anyone could get exercised about it suggests to me that they are either stuck in de Valeraland or have far too much time on their hands. The part of the shop that is visible to anyone outside it is very discreetly-designed; there is no merchandise in view or any images whatsoever. If you couldn’t read enough English to know what “adult shop” meant, you wouldn’t even know what it was. Apart from the extraneous apostrophe in “DVD’s”, in fact, I’m hard pressed to find anything offensive about it. And so the fuck what if it’s across from a church? What gives people coming to or going from church the right not to encounter any reminders of how the human race reproduces?

There’s an argument to be made, from a community perspective, against having a whole conglomerate of these shops in one neighbourhood. An area that has come to be known as a red light district can be fairly unpleasant to live in, in some cases even unsafe. But that’s not the argument Labour are making. Effectively, they want local authorities to be able to prevent any sex shop from opening anywhere if enough people (and how many is “enough”?) complain that it’s unsuitable. The Council’s attempt less than ten years ago to close the Ann Summers on O’Connell Street – O’Connell Street, for fuck’s sake – suggests that such a power is likely to be interpreted broadly, making adult shops all but impossible to open in the State. Would it be the end of the world if that happened? Of course not, but it would further undermine any claim of Ireland (south) to be somehow more secularly advanced than the US.

We may not put people like Sarah Palin in high office here, but it doesn't look to me like we need them.

What's wrong with this picture?

From today's Times:

A 17-YEAR-old girl, whom gardaí believe was trafficked into Ireland to work in the sex industry, has been remanded on continuing bail.
The girl, who is from Nigeria and cannot be named for legal reasons, is charged with failing to produce a passport or another form of identification.

Now maybe this is a product of my wild imagination, but I can think of a pretty good reason why a person who had been trafficked into the country might not have a passport or another form of identification. A few pretty good reasons, in fact.

The Government has repeatedly justified its refusal to legislate for the rights of trafficking victims on the basis that the Garda Síochána treat all such persons "sympathetically", "with respect and dignity" and so on. Yes, that's exactly how I would describe bringing criminal charges against someone for not making sure they had their identity papers with them when they were trafficked.

The threat of prosecution, deportation and other such punitive measures is a very effective way to discourage trafficking victims coming forward. This is a no-brainer. It's so obvious that even Michael McDowell as Minister always insisted (not in so many words, admittedly) that it didn't happen. And yet that's precisely what's happening right now in Carlow-Kilkenny.

It's a disgrace and a scandal and I cannot understand why the migrant and women's rights sectors are not all over it.
As the dwindling numbers of people who read this blog will know, I haven't been excited by much Irish news lately. But this article, pressing as it does a number of my buttons, made me sit up and take notice:

TEACHERS last night gave a guarded backing to calls for immigrant children who cannot speak English properly to be "segregated" in our classrooms.

This followed a Fine Gael
call yesterday for the Government to separate immigrant children with poor language skills from the rest of their classmates.


His comments attracted qualified support from the ASTI [secondary teachers' union] last night. However, they preferred to describe the teaching of immigrant children apart as putting them in “immersion classes” rather than “segregation”.

The ASTI spokeswoman said an understanding of English was the key to the integration of immigrant children in schools.

Doubtless there will be knee-jerk responses to this from both sides. Not that anybody listens to me, but I would plead for a few points to be kept in mind. The first being that there are several different considerations involved here, such as:
  • How non-English speaking children can learn the language as quickly as possible
  • How to prevent them falling behind in their other subjects
  • How to ensure English-speaking children aren't brought down as a result of all this

The biggest problem, it seems to me, is that there isn't necessarily one solution that effectively addresses all three of these issues (and that's before we even get into the subject of the social and psychological effects of separating students). I remember the bilingual education debate that was raging in California when I lived there in the 1990s - for all I know, it still is. One side presented studies showing that totally immersing the kids in English was the quickest way to teach them the language. The other side presented studies showing that own-language education in addition to intensive English was the most effective way to promote their all-around academic achievement. Sometimes, these were the same studies. Even proponents of one particular viewpoint were at times forced to admit that it wasn't necessarily a question of finding the "right" solution, but of deciding which aim to prioritise.

Language is a funny beast. It arouses almost inexplicable passions in people, often in inverse proportion to the amount they actually know about it. As was once pointed out to me by a friend of mine with an advanced degree in the subject, so much about language is counter-intuitive - and yet there seems to be hardly anyone out there without a very firm, almost visceral, opinion on the right way to deal with the vexing linguistic issues that arise. It's true for a lot of subjects, of course, that people form views from which they can't be swayed no matter how much contrary evidence is put in front of them. But language seems to me to be exceptional in the extent to which people care so much on the basis of so little understanding of how it actually works.

And it hardly needs to be added that people's views on the subject are often influenced to a great degree by their views on immigration and multiculturalism in general. This makes it difficult, at times, to sort out legitimate concerns about educational standards from lumpen xenophobia just looking for a respectable excuse to latch onto. Of course this works in reverse too: those of us who think of diversity as a positive end in itself are sometimes guilty of not thinking through the practical consequences of policies designed to promote it.

The education of children is an area where society simply cannot afford the hazards of such knee-jerk reactions from either side. It's too important to be decided on the basis of who's shouting the loudest, or which policy fits most neatly within a particular overall ideological framework. The government needs to look very closely at the available evidence - of which there is plenty, just ask the Californians - and make the decision that is demonstrated to be genuinely best for the children, regardless of how (un)popular it is. I know what I hope that decision turns out to be, but it's not for me to advocate. I don't really understand how it works either.

Overheard in Leinster House

A Fine Gael TD making a call on their mobile:

"Hello ... , can I get back that €20 I loaned you yesterday? I'm meeting someone for coffee."

No wonder Enda Kenny has been so critical of the Government this week. You know times are tough when even culchies earning upwards of €95,000 have to go around begging for change for a cuppa.

Lessons unlearned

Oh dear. It seems the Government is still having trouble getting its head around the reasons for the referendum defeat.

Hurriedly added to today's Dáil schedule is a motion to approve an agreement between the EU and Australia on the exchange of passenger information. The first that most TDs had heard of this agreement, with all its implications for confidentiality and data retention, was when a briefing note was circulated around 6.00 last night. Clearly, that's not enough time to scrutinise the agreement in detail - and the usual procedure of allowing an Oireachtas committee to thrash it out won't apply either. Why not? Where's the urgency?

With an absolutely straight face, Brian Cowen told the Dáil it had to be approved in this way, because ... the Slovenians are concluding their presidency of the EU soon and are anxious to have this on their record. And we're the only member state that hasn't got around to approving it yet.

Can anyone seriously argue these days that the parliament's role is as anything more than a rubber stamp? Even Cowen seemed embarrassed about it.

Overheard at the RDS

As tallies from the first few boxes started to make it clear the treaty was headed for a defeat, from an apparatchik attached to a certain anonymous Dublin city Fianna Fáil TD: "Looks like we'll be back here in a few months."

From the same anonymous Fianna Fáil TD speaking on his mobile phone a few minutes later: "Oh, it's about two-to-one in favour."

From a certain Irish Times pol-corr (hint: thinks she's a lot funnier than she actually is) as the final tallies came through: "The Irish people are stupid."

More as I remember them...

Sanity prevails

After all the controversy of the past few months, in the end it wasn't even close. British MPs voted 304 to 233 against lowering the abortion limit to 24 weeks. Immediately prior to that they'd voted not to reduce it to 20 weeks, 16 weeks or 12, the last two of these not even mustering 100 ayes.

There were a number of reasons for this strong pro-choice showing. Because of recent evidence that medicine is making no progress in improving survival rates for babies born before 24 weeks. Because less than 1.5% of all abortions in Britain are carried out after 20 weeks - and when they are, the reason for the delay is nearly always more serious than abortion opponents like to suggest. And, of course, because the absence of an authoritarian religious tradition means that most British people are not brainwashed from an early age into thinking of the foetus as a fully independent little person with all the rights of the woman whose body it is wholly dependent on. Sometimes I think we're not only on a different island over here, but on another planet.

It's a shame that an amendment that would have extended abortion rights to the Six Counties was withdrawn. By the looks of things it might have had a chance of passing, over the disgraceful opposition of all four of the major parties in the Six, including my own. (Chris Gaskin has astutely if ungrammatically pointed out the hypocrisy of the unionist parties in objecting to this aspect of British rule, but the truth is that all of them are simply calling for the problem to be exported.) So last night's vote wasn't the opportunity it could have been to take a step forward, but at least it wasn't a step back - and with all the anti-choice hysteria we've heard lately that in itself feels like a small victory.

Well done to Louise and other women in Britain who put so much effort into this.

I know, I know...

I've been terrible for updating this year. Apologies. Hopefully the normal order will be restored later in the summer, when life calms down a bit.

A quick thought for the moment. One of this blog's top bugbears, the Offences Against the State Act, is up for renewal next month. Previously the Green Party could always be counted on to oppose it (although they couldn't always be counted on to get all their TDs in for the vote). It was an admirable principled stance on an issue that had nothing to offer them electorally, and I was happy to give them credit for it.

Obviously this year will be different. They've lined up behind FF on every other issue, and there's no way they'll be let off the hook for this one. While I have some sympathy for the argument that compromise is necessary in a coalition - at least I've had to tell myself that every time I look to what's happening (or not) up north - it's notable that the Greens haven't really tended to make that argument, at least not in the Dáil chamber. Instead of acknowledging that they've had to do u-turns for the sake of their Cabinet seats, or even staying out of debates entirely and just showing up to hold their noses and vote on the Government side, they send their TDs in to argue why the Opposition is actually wrong to be taking this or that position at the present time. So I have to assume that when OASA comes up again they'll do the same. The only question is how they'll justify their reversal - gangland activity, I suppose, since it's hardly arguable that republicans or Islamic militants or anyone else with a political agenda poses any real threat at the moment. But we shall see.

If any Greens reading this have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Policing pokes up its ugly head again

I see that Hugh Orde met an Assembly committee yesterday on the matter of the devolution of policing and justice powers. Orde said he sees no reason not to meet the May 2008 target date while unionists, predictably, insist that it won't happen until certain other conditions are met (including, shockeroonie, another pre-condition for republicans).

Sinn Féin's response is here, and one line is particularly noteworthy:

The devolution of Policing and Justice was a key element in the negotiations that led to the restoration of the political institutions.

What that translates to, of course, is "We secured our membership's approval on the basis of a reassurance that policing and justice would be devolved by May 2008 and we're going to have serious problems if that doesn't actually happen". There is no other way to read it, given that all and sundry on the unionist side were making it perfectly clear when St Andrews was agreed that they were not signing up to a hard-and-fast deadline.

In a way it reminds me of the old decommissioning debate. The GFA, remember, called for all parties to "use their influence" to achieve decommissioning within two years. SF said at the time that this wasn't a deadline. The IRA at the time said flat-out that they would decommission only when they were good and ready to. Nonetheless, unionists insisted it was a time-locked guarantee and sold it to their people as such. We all know the rest.

The only real question now is - when May 2008 comes and goes and there is still no devolution, will the governments do as they did with decommissioning, insist there actually was a deadline and turn against the side refusing to meet it? Or will they take a literal interpretation of St Andrews and accept the unionists' demands for further concessions? Precedent only points to one answer.


On another matter, the unionists are apparently unhappy at the suggestion that the British Government might admit that there was a war going on in the Six Counties.

Well, Chichester-Clark admitted it 36 years ago, what's the point of denying it now?

How many EU countries does it take to change a lightbulb?

Apparently, all of them.

Green Party Minister for the Environment John Gormley discovered this today when he was told that his plans to ban incandescent lightbulbs might not go ahead - because they are not banned in the rest of the EU. According to RTÉ:

...under EU mutual recognition rules that govern the internal market, member states must allow the sale [of] any product that is legally for sale in another member state.

There are clearly some exceptions to this rule (cannabis and mifepristone come to mind), but the EU Commission seems to think that incandescent lightbulbs aren't one of them. So no ban unless Gormley can get every other member state to agree.

Whatever about the merits of the proposal, this rule strikes me as utterly mad and as confirmation of the unhealthy influence that business interests have over Brussels. It's also a warning signal about the loss of sovereignty that goes along with European integration. For all the Europhiles' insistence that we are not turning into a "United States of Europe", it's worth noting that a US state doesn't have to ask the permission of all 49 others before banning a product that it deems harmful.

Still, as I can't be arsed to research the regulation in detail, I'd very much welcome if someone wanted to explain to me exactly why it doesn't apply to mifepristone.
  Subscribe with Bloglines