Sunday, June 21, 2020

Jigsaw Puzzle

“Nation Gives It a Week Before Fianna Fáil & Fine Gael at Each Other’s Throats”
  —Headline on the satirical Irish newspaper website Waterford Whispers News, June 17
Surely, you might be thinking, Ireland must have a government by now. Wasn’t the election way back in February? The current situation here is a good example of the limits of parliamentary government in a politically divided society.

Three of the four largest parties (in terms of seats won) have indeed negotiated a coalition agreement. This is historic for a couple of reasons. For one, it marks the first time that the dominant traditional parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) have agreed to formally govern together. In Irish terms, this is comparable to the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. forming a coalition in, say, the early 1960s (i.e. when the two parties were more heterogenous than they are today) in response to a fast-rising third party. Remember, these Irish parties are remnants of factions that fought a bloody civil war a mere century ago. Some party old-timers are reacting like hell has frozen over.

The other historic thing about it is that the third partner is the Green Party. Yes, the Greens have been in government before, but they were not in a position to seriously affect government policy the way they are now. This time they are playing hardball. They know there will not be a stable government without them, and they have pressed that advantage for all it’s worth. In addition to addressing various social issues, increasing funding for cycling and public transportation infrastructure and raising the carbon tax, it commits the government to cutting the nation’s carbon emissions 7 percent per year.

That last one will prove interesting. Lightly industrialized compared to other European countries, the bulk of Ireland’s emissions (38 percent) come from homes and cars. Another big chunk (33 percent) comes from agriculture, mostly methane from livestock. (Yes, cow farts.) To reduce emissions by that target is going to involve some pretty major changes to both modern and traditional ways of life here. The already-existing urban/rural divide could well become fraught.

Leaders of the two big parties presumably can deliver their members’ support, but the Greens are divided, and the entire membership must vote on the agreement. A lot of the most idealistic members think the deal does not go nearly far enough. Some notable party members have publicly come out against it.

If the deal falls apart, then what? In that case, a new election looks unavoidable. How is that likely to turn out?

Sinn Féin, which was locked out of coalition talks, won the most seats in the February election and were on a definite upswing in the weeks after. Will that bear out in a new poll, thereby putting Ireland on a clearly leftward path? Or will Fine Gael (on the wane leading up to the last election) bounce back because of its caretaker government role in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?

Even if the coalition works out, things will not be easy. As Independent TD John Halligan put it, “Fianna Fáil traditionally can’t stand Fine Gael. Fine Gael traditionally can’t stand Fianna Fáil and both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can’t stand the Greens so you’re going to have some mismatch of a government put together.”

If it does fall apart, the big loser will be Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who stands to be the next taoiseach (prime minister) in a rotating arrangement with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar. He has long aspired to be the first taoiseach from Cork since Jack Lynch left office in 1979.

As a headline in The Irish Times had it over the weekend, “Micheál Martin, the ‘next taoiseach’ since 1998.”

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Spy Games

“Updated Patriot Act Finally Legalizes 80% Of Current FBI Operations”
  —Headline in The Onion, May 14
Sometimes I think I live in a completely different reality than everyone else. Or maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t have amnesia. Or maybe it’s just that everyone working in the news media is a child with no perspective going back further than his or her recent high school graduation.

The latest thing that has set me off is the reporting on the “unmasking” that has been going on in U.S. government agencies. There are lots of examples of what I am talking about, but let’s pick on an article that appeared in The Washington Post last week. Here is the lead paragraph: “Three Republican senators on Wednesday made public a declassified list of U.S. officials, including former vice president Joe Biden, who made requests that would ultimately ‘unmask’ Trump adviser Michael Flynn in intelligence documents in late 2016 and early 2017—a common government practice but one that some conservatives have seized on to imply wrongdoing.”

Did I miss something? I certainly accept the Post’s assertion that unmasking is “a common government practice,” but when did that happen? More importantly, when did it become an unnoteworthy circumstance in the Post’s journalistic estimation?

Were none of the four reporters credited with working on the article old enough to remember—or at least read about—the huge debate we had over the Patriot Act?

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there was understandably a huge spike in the volume of surveillance applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As the possible terrorists being monitored were not U.S. citizens, they did not get protections under the U.S. Constitution, but there was concern about the U.S. citizens (incidental capture, as it was termed) that monitored foreigners might be talking to. What about their rights? The solution to this problem was to mask the names of any U.S. citizens that might be picked up. Extremely senior U.S. government officials, however, could unmask those names if there was a demonstrable security concern. In other words, don’t worry, civil libertarians, Americans’ privacy rights are being looked after. Nothing to be paranoid about.

“In 2019,” our Post correspondents inform us nonchalantly in the final paragraph of their article, “the NSA unmasked just over 10,000 U.S. individuals’ identities, a substantial decrease from the previous year, but still more than in the final year of the Obama administration, according to government records.”

Uh, okay. Maybe it’s just me, but that kind of seems like a lot. Remember, they are supposed to be surveilling only non-Americans. There is a whole different process involved when you actually want to surveil U.S. citizens. You’re supposed to get a warrant from a judge.

The Post’s journalistic nonchalance is presumably because this isn’t an article about American civil liberties. It is an article reassuring us not to be concerned about the unmasking that was occurring during the Obama Administration. Nothing to worry about, folks. This stuff happens all the time.

The thing is, even if we accept that, yes, lots of foreigners’ conversations get monitored by our intelligence services, and yes, a lot of Americans get caught up in that monitoring, and sure, thousands of those Americans have their identities revealed even though they are supposed to have constitutional protections from that kind of fishing-expedition type monitoring, someone still needs to explain to me something else.

You see, because there is nothing I can possibly do about it, I pretty much have to accept that my country’s government is doing all this electronic monitoring and is frequently using a back-door to the Constitution to listen in on Americans without keeping it anonymous. All I can do is hope that this is mostly being done by intelligence professionals whose overriding priority is the country’s security. Should I be concerned that, in the final hours of the Obama Administration, no fewer than 39 officials—including Vice-President Joe Biden and political appointees John Brennan, James Clapper, Samantha Power and Denis McDonough—took the trouble of requesting the unmasking of the incoming National Security Advisor of the newly-elected administration?

Maybe they had a good reason. We now know, thanks to an email that for some reason outgoing National Security Advisor Susan Rice sent to herself on her last day on the job, that FBI director James Comey had concerns about Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador. He must have also had concerns about incoming President Trump as well because he did not do want you would expect him to do in that situation, i.e. advise his new boss that there were concerns about the new National Security Advisor. In fact, he deliberately kept this information from the new president.

If Michael Flynn had subsequently been revealed to be a double agent, Comey would now be a hero and his surveillance might appeared to have been justified. Instead, a subsequent two-year special counsel investigation—despite catching various individuals in process crimes and an assortment of generally unrelated violations—found absolutely no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign/administration and Russia.

What about Comey’s concerns about Flynn then? What exactly did Robert Mueller’s final report tell us about Flynn’s phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak? To the extent the report talks about them, they seem pretty innocuous. Here is Mueller’s summary of what is considered the most “incriminating” one:

Immediately after speaking with McFarland, Flynn called and spoke with Kislyak. Flynn discussed multiple topics with Kislyak, including the sanctions, scheduling a video teleconference between President-Elect Trump and Putin, an upcoming terrorism conference, and Russia’s views about the Middle East. With respect to the sanctions, Flynn requested that Russia not escalate the situation, not get into a “tit for tat,” and only respond to the sanctions in a reciprocal manner.

Maybe I’m thick, but that doesn’t sound like treason to me.

We now also know, thanks to FBI notes that have been declassified, that the FBI had basically ended its probe of Flynn in the Russian matter by the early days of the Trump Administration but was then told by upper management to keep the investigation open. In the early, chaotic days of the new administration, two agents (one of whom would later be fired over anti-Trump text messages) met with Flynn in what was meant to be an informal, friendly conversation. Their declassified notes tell us their intention was to catch him in a lie (he did not know he had been under surveillance) or threaten him with a violation of the Logan Act, a two-century-old law that had never been used to prosecute anybody and certainly was never meant to apply to incoming government officials. We have also known for some time that Flynn pled guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI under the threat of his son being prosecuted in an unrelated matter.

So does this make Flynn some sort of hero? Not particularly, since he was largely the victim of his own bad judgments, but he was also very unlucky. Let us remember that Flynn, a Democrat, served in the military more than thirty years and was Obama’s Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for two years until he was forced out, apparently over policy disagreements, although his management style was the main reason cited.

Former President Obama is still preoccupied with his former DIA director. Two weeks ago in an online talk to the Obama Alumni Association, he railed against the Justice Department decision (after an independent review of the case by an outside prosecutor) to drop the charges against Flynn.

“[T]here is no precedent that anybody can find,” said Obama, “for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic—not just institutional norms—but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk.”

It is hard to believe that Obama would confuse perjury with the different crime of lying to the FBI, but it is easy to understand why he might do so deliberately in this case. Some of us can remember all the way back to January 2017 when, in his final days in office, he pardoned retired General James E. Cartwright, former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for—guess what—the crime of lying to the FBI (about discussions with reporters about Iran’s nuclear program).

Let us note that the FBI’s surveillance of Michael Flynn was not illegal. Nor were the unmasking requests for Michael Flynn’s name. (The fact that this information was leaked days later to The Washington Post, however, was indeed a crime and may be one of the things covered in an ongoing investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Should be interesting since the suspect list is pretty short.) No, it is not any breaking of the law that worries me. It is the fact that this is all not only legal but apparently common.

Some things just never change. If you give politicians the legal means to spy on their political opponents, few will be able to resist the temptation. And even when the spying turns up no dirt, these days all you need to cause trouble is just the innuendo caused by the fact the spying was taking place.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Virtual Government

“Teacher Can’t Wait To Use ‘Calculated Grades’ To F*** Over Prick Student He Hates”
  —Headline (slightly edited) on the Irish satirical newspaper website Waterford Whispers, May 8
Here are a couple of questions that come to mind as the pandemic persists. Is Ireland turning into Singapore? Are governments even necessary?

The first question is prompted by the inevitable police-state-style trappings that accompany emergency situations like quarantines and lockdowns. Of course, in typical Irish fashion, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the country via television on March 24, he described a lockdown while at the same time saying he preferred not to use the word lockdown. In other words, we aren’t forcing you to stay home; it’s just a helpful suggestion. With time, though, the shutdown has become more stringently enforced. TV news footage on a bank holiday weekend showed traffic jams on major roads as officers of the Garda Síochána stopped cars at checkpoints to decide on a case-by-case basis whether each car’s travel was essential. Reasonable people certainly support law enforcement breaking up large gatherings and people crowding into public spaces, but anecdotal word-of-mouth accounts have also described gardaí stopping people walking alone on beaches and in uncrowded parks and inspecting people’s groceries to determine if their shopping was essential.

There may be a law-and-order silver lining to all this. Newspapers recount incidences of gardaí catching smugglers of drugs and illegal weapons because of the lockdown-enforcing checkpoints. Another silver lining may be—depending on your point of view—the cancellation of the Leaving Certification, the battery of state exams that graduating secondary school students endure for the sake of college placement. Instead students will be awarded “predictive” points based on past performance and evaluations by their teachers and principals. One hopes this system will work better than predictive text when typing on one’s mobile phone.

Of course, it is only reasonable to expect to have your liberty and economic well-being curtailed in a life-or-death emergency. Previous civilian generations have sacrificed much more in wartime and in the wake of natural disasters. What makes it a bit unreal in the current situation, though, is that the emergency has a strangely virtual quality to it. We mainly know how bad things are because of statistics flashed on a screen or printed in a newspaper. In the visible world around us, nothing seems to have changed except for the way everyone is behaving.

Adding to the Singapore effect here is the fact that the dominant source of news is the state broadcaster. RTÉ is in the tricky dual role of official dispenser of government information and journalistic enterprise. Hosts of all public affairs programs on the TV and radio are clearly expected to be generally supportive of the government’s measures and by extension the medical opinions underlying them. After a while—especially to someone used to the clashing ideological news sources in the US media landscape—it starts to feel a bit Big-Brother-ish.

A further complication is that there is currently no government here. By an accident of timing, the pandemic happened at the same moment as an inconclusive general election. Given the results, forming a new government was always going to be a challenge. Because of the emergency, negotiations are competing with even more serious distractions than normal. So Varadkar continues as a caretaker head of government along with his outgoing ministers, some of whom actually lost their seats in the election. In a Catch-22-like situation, the caretaker government cannot pass legislation because that requires a full Senate, and there won’t be a full Senate until there is a new Taoiseach because only the new Taoiseach can complete the Senate with his own appointments, and there won’t be a new Taoiseach until a new government is formed. I wonder if all those politicians who once talked about reforming or abolishing the Senate wish they had actually done something about it when they had they chance.

As of this writing, the two major parties which have always run the country are in what seem to be final negotiations with the Green Party, which appears riven by the prospect of another go as a minority coalition partner. Not only does a sizeable portion of the Greens look to be alienated by the likely result, so will be a big chunk of voters who gave the major-change party Sinn Féin a plurality of the popular vote.

Reassuringly, the lack of a government has not stopped the caretaker ministers and professional civil service from dealing with the pandemic. Whatever they need to do, they just do—whether by written orders or edict or fiat or whatever. They are also spending (actually, borrowing) a ton of money to get through the crisis. You can’t really blame them. After all, what other choice do they realistically have?

It is, however, what prompts the question I asked above. Are elected governments even necessary?

My concern is for when Sinn Féin eventually finds itself in the position of being able to answer that question.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Life in Lockdown

“As well-armed as the Parliamentary forces were, their deadliest weapon may have been the one they brought inadvertently. People in the town were now dying of a plague that had traveled with the English. Memories were all too fresh of the 1649 plague that had killed well over 3,000.”
   —Excerpt from the 2019 novel The Curse of Septimus Bridge
The above quote is a handy reminder that 1) plagues, endemics and pandemics have always been with us and 2) I actually wrote a novel called The Curse of Septimus Bridge. (For more information on that, as well as an update on my upcoming novel, see my book blog.)

History tells us that armies, explorers, conquistadores, holidaymakers and business travelers have, at various points in time, have helped spread virulent diseases from one territory to another. What is amazing is that, in this age of globalism and cheap-and-easy international travel, such outbreaks do not happen more often. Instead we appear to be going through a once-in-a-century phenomenon with the current crisis evoking mostly recollections of the 1918-1920 so-called Spanish flu pandemic.

That flu is estimated to have infected a third of the world’s population and killed, in the most liberal guesses, as many as 100 million. Then the world was much more defenseless than now. The ventilator would not be invented until several years later, and flu vaccines were decades away.

As the experts remind us, Covid-18 is not an influenza strain and so does not behave like one. That is what makes it scary. We are only learning as time goes on exactly how it behaves and just how dangerous it truly is.

There are signs of optimism if you want to look for them. For those of us in the majority who (as far as we know anyway) have not experienced it, the danger is more theoretical than real. For those who have had a mild or even asymptomatic case, the main concern is for others rather than for oneself. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that many people’s nerves have relaxed enough that they have already moved past the old-wartime-style-let’s-all-pull-together mentality right to using the crisis as one more political football. I don’t spend much time listening to the White House daily briefings, but based on what I have heard they seem to contain a lot of useful and/or interesting information from government and health officials. When it comes to cable news, the president and his twitter account, though, he and the press corps seem more than content to just carry on the same noisy and distracting game in which they have engaged since the 2016 election.

Here in Ireland the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit still mostly prevails. A lot of that has to do with the fact that news coverage here is led by a dominant state broadcaster that has little space for unsanctioned views or contrarian attitudes at a time like this. There is much collective self-back-patting at the Irish response, frequently drawing meaningless, self-flattering comparisons to other (much larger) countries, particular the UK and the US.

Having said that, there is a growing criticism, or at least collective regret, that the authorities were blindsided by the number of fatalities in nursing homes. With the benefit of hindsight it now seems clear that, while citizens in general were told to hunker down in their homes, not enough attention was given to the vulnerable elder population residing in clusters. This is probably because the planners were watching what was going on hotspots like China and Italy where living and family arrangements are more traditional than here. Ireland has become more like America in that the old folks are more likely to be sent off to a home.

For the average news consumer it is difficult to gauge exactly how bad things are in general. On one hand we see disturbing images of pine coffins stacked on top of each other in a trench on New York’s Hart Island as well as similar photos from Spain and Italy. On the other hand, there is the article in today’s Wall Street Journal about results of hundreds of blood tests taken in Los Angeles. Echoing similar stories from Europe, the emerging picture is that a lot more people than expected have antibodies for Covid-19, suggesting the rate of serious illness and fatalities among those exposed is actually quite a bit lower than previously thought.

I guess that’s a perverse kind of optimism. Another example is the fact that some people are emboldened to go out—against health expert advice—and protest restrictions imposed by authorities. People have marched or found other ways of protesting in such far-flung places as Michigan, Washington, Texas, France, Germany, India and Chile. Others have more cautiously done their protesting online. These are clearly signs of pent-up frustration at the personal and economic restrictions as well as local-issue-fueled discontent. The protestors are willing to test the assertion they risk spreading the disease more widely. In the process, they have become a political litmus test in the debate between those who want everyone to heed government/expert advice/diktats and those who subscribe to the spirit, which was big in the 1960s, of “question authority.”

The other night, protesting fishermen in Dingle, County Kerry, prevented the docking of Spanish-owned trawler for fear of introducing more virus cases. Were they perhaps thinking back a whole century to the Spanish flu?

Friday, March 13, 2020

Government Self-isolation

“Ireland Officially Changes Covid-19 Status From ‘Be Grand’ To ‘Alright, Fair Enough’ ”
—Headline on the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News on Thursday
Remember a while back when I gloated that countries that have the parliamentary system, like Ireland, get their campaigns and elections over with quickly and do not drag their citizens through endless months and years of electioneering? Well, the flip side of that is that, under the parliamentary system, once the election is over, sometimes you can be waiting weeks or months for a government to be formed.

An extreme example of this was the Belgian election of 2010. Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned on April 26 of that year, and the election was held on June 13. It took until November of 2011 for a government to be formed. Leterme wound up serving as a caretaker head of government for 589 days.

The root causes of the deadlock lay in the country’s division between the Flemish and the Walloons, Belgian peoples who not only have different cultures but who literally speak different languages. Things got so bad that, at one point, separatist Walloons had talks with the president of France and the French Socialist Party about becoming a new region of France.

So how are things going in Ireland, which had its election on February 8? More than a month later there is still no government. Is there any danger Dublin will break Brussels’ record for government-forming negotiations? Not likely, given the seriousness of Brexit and, more immediately, the coronavirus emergency. The latter particularly seems to leave no room for more of the game-playing that the various parties were happy to indulge in at first. Anything that cancels everything from St. Patrick’s Day to GAA matches to Mass is pretty serious business.

Here’s my own assessment of the government situation, for what it’s worth (probably not much). Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael each won roughly a quarter of the seats in Dáil Éireann. The remainder went to various smaller parties and independents. How do you fit that jigsaw puzzle together? Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are perfectly compatible ideologically but hate the idea of a “grand coalition” between them for historical reasons and the likely real perception that such a deal would only shrink their support further, helping the left in the long run. Fine Gael in particular appears anxious to go into opposition, calculating that is in its best long-term interest.

The Green Party with its 12 seats is in the kingmaker seat, as they are the only easy completing piece to a combination of any two of the larger parties. The Greens, however, were badly burned the last time they were a junior coalition partner, so they are holding firm on either getting to call the shots or opting for a national unity government. Sinn Féin, which has never been in government in the republic, seems anxious to get in, but the other large parties have varying levels of mistrust.

The national unity idea (a government of all elected TDs) has gained force with the intensifying Covid-19 pressure. However good it may sound in a Kumbaya sort of way, though, it would be awfully unwieldy in practice.

The likely outcome, as least as it appears as of this writing, is a FF/FG/Greens arrangement, but who would lead it? Outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar only seems interested if there is a rotating Taoiseach arrangement. Another idea that has been floated is to make the leader of the smallest coalition partner (the Greens’ Eamon Ryan) the head of government. This might assuage left-leaning voters, who are certain to feel bitterly cheated by a FF/FG government. Those parties are all too aware that the only reasons that Sinn Féin does not have an outright plurality of seats is because 1) FF got a freebie because one of their members happened to be the Ceann Comhairle (lower house speaker) and so retained his seat automatically and 2) Sinn Féin did not put forward more candidates who, it is now clear, would have been elected. To add even more pressure, the first opinion poll after the election showed a huge jump in support for Sinn Féin, meaning that a new election might well turn out even worse for the other two main parties, resulting in a Sinn Féin-led government.

It is worth noting that the concerns about Sinn Féin are not without merit. The party seems to have an awful lot of money on hand and, even taking into account a multi-million-pound bequeathal in a quirky, old, radical Englishman’s will last year, the source of its funding is by no means entirely clear. Furthermore, the highest levels of the party’s decision-making are frustratingly opaque, which does nothing to dispel concerns that the old IRA Army Council, or some variation of it, is still calling the shots.

It is still an open question how the next Irish government will be formed. One hopes it will not take as long as Belgium a decade ago. An interesting question is whether, as in the Belgian case, an extended deadlock will spur some—even more than already—toward thoughts of realigning national borders.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Populism’s Popularity

“Irish Parties Put Their Car Keys in a Bowl as Coalition Talks Begin”
—Headline on the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News on Monday
What exactly is a populist? It’s a word that you hear a lot, and perhaps you even use it yourself. Do we all understand and mean the same thing when it is used?

For a while now my own handy definition of populist has been a politician who is very popular but whom I personally do not like. That is because the word usually seems to be used in negative connotation, usually in relation to President Trump.

I have now gone to the trouble of looking up the dictionary meaning, and this is what at least one online dictionary says: “A person, especially a politician, who strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition is even simpler, not mentioning elites: “A person who seeks to represent or appeal to the interests of ordinary people.” That suggests that, if you consider the word populist some kind of epithet, then it must be because you have little regard for the concerns of “ordinary people.”

In a democracy isn’t appealing to most people, presumably including ordinary people, the whole point of the exercise? Yet in many uses of the word populist I get a sense that the word’s target is branded as manipulating or deceiving simple-minded folks. I suppose it comes down to one’s confidence in the judgment of the electorate as a whole.

The dictionary definition does not ascribe any particular ideology to populism, so pretty much any politician—left, right or center—can be one, as long as his or her rhetoric is aimed squarely at ordinary folks. President Trump certainly qualifies, but you would have to say that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren do as well. Their clear message is that ordinary people are being exploited by the rich and powerful. In Ireland I think you could say that, similarly, Mary Lou McDonald, head of the Sinn Féin party, qualifies as a populist. She claims to speak on behalf of ordinary people in rejecting policies of the two parties that have governed the Irish republic since its founding.

Since very few politicians would claim not to represent the interests of ordinary people, does the term populist have any meaning at all—other than to to frighten the supporters of longtime, well-established politicians or parties?

If we think of populism as simply a rejection of politics as usual, then there is certainly a lot of it around.

Having now won a popular plurality in the first two Democratic primary contests, Sanders is certainly worrying the “elites” in his party. Is it more important that he came in first in New Hampshire, though, or that candidates more “moderate” than he and Elizabeth Warren (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden) collectively took more than half the vote? That depends on whether Democratic voters are mostly making their choices by looking at the candidates through a left/moderate prism or through an electable/non-electable lens. In voters’ minds candidates are unlikely to shift between left and moderate lanes, but they can easily move been electable and non-electable categories. Joe Biden, for example, seems to be making such a transition.

Of course, the U.S. primaries are merely the first stage of the presidential election. Once the two parties have their nominees, then we will move on to the final vote in November.

In Ireland, the process is a bit more complicated, but with any luck it will be a lot less time-consuming. The country has the results of its general election, which was held on Saturday, and now a government has to be formed. Since no party has a particularly sizeable plurality—let alone a majority—the top vote-getting parties must enter into negotiations to work out some kind of governing coalition or arrangement.

Of the 160 seats in Dáil Éireann, 38 have gone to Fianna Fáil, 37 to Sinn Féin, 35 to Fine Gael (the incumbent governing party), and 12 to the Green Party. The remaining 38 seats are spread out over a collection of smaller parties and independent politicians. If you enjoy a good round of Sudoku, then have fun trying to put together a combination of those numbers to get to or above the governing threshold of 80.

The simplest solution on paper is a “grand coalition” of the two establishment parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) plus the Greens, but there are a whole lot of reasons why that is a problem for at least two of those parties. For one thing the Greens—as well as Labour (which tallied a mere 6 seats this time) and the now-extinct Progressive Democrats—have previously seen their fortunes seriously dashed by going into coalition with one of the big parties. Fianna Fáil has also been burned by propping up Fine Gael for the past four years. Such arrangements do nothing to dispel the increasingly popular notion that FF and FG are merely two wings of a single virtual political party.

Mindful that Sinn Féin actually won the popular vote and would have actually won the most seats if they had only run more candidates, the big parties seem content for now to let McDonald see what she can manage by combining her party’s 37 seats with those of smaller parties and independents. If she succeeds—and it has to be seen as a pretty darn big if—it will result in a history-making “coalition of the left.”

It will also mark a stunning triumph of populism.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Election Season

“Why, why why, could they not have had this reporting problem in 2004? Asking for a friend.”
—Late Monday night tweet about the Iowa caucuses from Joe Trippi, veteran Democratic strategist who was Howard Dean’s campaign manager in 2004
Remember that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times? I wonder if whoever came up with that was thinking about something like the coronavirus. Or maybe early 21st-century election campaigns?

For the next few days I am in the interesting position of observing fascinating campaigns in both of my countries. The American one will go on quite a bit longer, but the Irish one will end on Saturday—closing an election period with the very civilized lifespan of a mere 25 days.

Usually, the only questions in an Irish election are as follows: will it be Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael that will form a government and will they have to find a coalition partner? If the polling is to be believed, however, things could be different this time. A major opinion poll released yesterday has Sinn Féin in first place with 25 percent, followed by Fianna Fáil at 23 percent and Fine Gael (the current government party) at 20 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percent.

Typical Irish election
social media humor
Opinion polls, of course, are not destiny, as people who dislike Brexit and Donald Trump know all too well. For whatever reason, Sinn Féin has historically underperformed its opinion polling, but of course that will continue to be true only until it isn’t. If Sinn Féin does indeed come in first, it will be huge. It will mean that Irish voters will have taken a major step away from the legacy factions of the 1922-23 Civil War toward a party that is a strange mixture of nationalist and socialist ideas and of which the primary raison d’être is the reunification of the island’s 32 counties. My own personal political intelligence (I follow a few college-age Irish people on Twitter) tells me that many young, as well as some not-so-young, voters are enthused about the prospect of a left-wing coalition that could comprise the Green Party, Sinn Féin, and a collection of other smaller parties and independents.

What about older—and generally more reliable—voters? The country is actually in pretty good shape in terms of employment and the economy, but there is a lot of unease over hospital waiting times and a persistent homeless crisis. Moreover, a string of spectacularly violent incidents involving feuding criminal gangs has created an impression of things spinning out of control. The polling might indicate that people are looking for change even if they little to complain about their own current personal circumstances.

Meanwhile, how about things in the U.S.? I have to confess that I got a frisson of déjà vu this morning when a radio bulletin informed me there was hiccup with the results of the Iowa caucuses. This follows the rather shocking discarding of the Des Moines Register poll, which is traditionally the final pre-caucus tea-leaves reading. If one is prone to conspiracy theories, one might be tempted to fear a cover-up or an attempt at massaging results. Other details that feed this paranoia: earlier polls were suggesting that Bernie Sanders would win and the fact that, in certain banana republics, delayed election results are a warning sign of mischief.

Worryingly, this is more likely to be something worse than vote tampering. It could be sheer incompetence. Think about it. The very same party that has been harping for more than three years about Russian hacking into social media and U.S. elections is not only the same one whose last presidential candidate was found to have been conducting all her government business on an unsecured email server in a closet in her home but which is now the same party that has attempted to collate its first 2020 voting results with a new app that did not work.

I’ll be honest. I’m getting very worried about the Democratic Party. Not only did it clearly fix its presidential nomination process four years ago for a pre-determined candidate, but this time around it seems determined to sabotage itself by frittering away its two-year term in control of the House of Representatives by doing nothing but relitigating the last election and offering no clear-cut vision for the next election. That is not to say that there are not new and interesting ideas out there in the Democratic Party, but the people who run the party seem determined to tap the energy of those ideas without seriously entertaining the ideas themselves.

For more than three years now Democrats have lectured us that President Trump is a threat to democracy because of his authoritarian tendencies. They impeached him for seeking an investigation of a political opponent. The problem is that half the country looks at the Democratic Party and sees it doing exactly what it accuses the president of doing: using its political office to launch endless investigations of a political enemy. What else does the Democratic congressional majority have to show for the past year?

If voters have concerns about the integrity of American elections, will they really be inclined to turn to the people in charge of this year’s Iowa Democratic caucuses? And which happens to be the same party that was so concerned about democracy that it engaged in a completely quixotic attempt to bar the other party’s president from being able to run for re-election?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Perpetual Campaign

“Putin Not Arsed Interfering In Irish Election.”
—Headline on the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News, January 14
As Americans suffer through an interminable presidential election campaign that seems as if it has been going on for years—even though we are still more or less a fortnight away from the first actual voting—other countries mock us by holding their own elections in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Yes, the Brexit morass seemed to drag on forever in the United Kingdom, paralyzing the country’s politics. Yet once Boris Johnson finally got the various parties to agree to holding an election, he was able to dissolve Parliament in early November, and the voting took place a scant five weeks later. In the end, it all happened relatively quickly and, surprisingly and pleasingly for some, the voting turned out to be quite decisive.

Now it is Ireland’s turn. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dissolved Dáil Éireann a week ago, and voting will take place three and a half weeks from now. Americans can only dream of having an election campaign confined to such a quick and relatively painless time span.

Of course, in democratic nations election campaigning never really stops. Politicians are always angling for the next round of voting—even when they do not know precisely when that will happen. That’s one of the quirks of the parliamentary system. A government has a maximum lifespan, but frequently its demise—and consequently, the next election—comes sometime before that deadline. Sometimes well before. Any member of a parliament may theoretically ask for a vote of no-confidence in the government at any time, and if the government loses that vote, then let the electioneering begin.

In the U.S. system, by contrast, we know the dates of all future elections on into the distant future. Election Day is a fixed date on the calendar, and every Congress and presidential administration knows it will be in charge until the next election. Interestingly, Democrats seem intent on making the U.S. system more like the European parliamentary one. At least that is the impression they give. By passing articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives, they seem to want to use that power as a substitute for a no-confidence motion. Yet they are doing this in the full knowledge that it has virtually no possibility of being ratified in the Senate. You normally do not see a quixotic no-confidence motion, i.e. one that has no chance of passing, like this in European parliaments. So the impeachment is not really like a no-confidence motion after all. It’s more like a form of censure. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells us, “You are impeached forever.” Will that be a consolation to her if President Trump is reelected after his certain Senate acquittal? A lot of sober observers think that is the likely outcome.

Back to the Irish election. Interestingly, Varadkar has been the head of government for two-and-half years, yet this will be his first time leading his party into an election. That is because another quirk of the parliamentary system is that you can get a new national leader without having a national election. Varadkar became Taoiseach when he replaced Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael in 2017. Until recently he had been able to avoid an election by continuing a “confidence and supply” agreement (where the main opposition party Fianna Fáil agreed not to bring down the government) negotiated by his predecessor when no party got a governing majority in the 2016 election. Varadkar was able to argue successfully for quite some time that the government should not end while the “crisis” of Brexit was ongoing. Apparently, that crisis must be over because members of the Dáil were getting ready to bring down the government by holding a vote of no-confidence in the health minister over persistent problems in the healthcare system.

So what is likely to happen on February 8? Polling suggests that Fianna Fáil has a slight-to-significant edge, but the real question is whether either of the two parties will be able to form a new government easily. Party voting has become more fractured in recent years, as younger voters abandon old loyalties to remnant factions of the 1922-23 Civil War and eye more ideologically-based parties. These include Sinn Féin, formerly the political arm of the Irish Republican Army but now a fairly standard-issue hard-left party; Labour, a shell of its former self after a disastrous coalition with Fine Gael; the Green Party, benefitting from a burgeoning and youthful climate awareness; and small parties and factions like Solidarity, People Before Profit and the Social Democrats. It will also be interesting to watch a new party called Aontú (Irish for “unity”) which has split off from Sinn Féin in reaction to that party’s hard-leftward tilt.

Another issue to watch in the near-to-medium future is that of Irish reunification. Strangely, Irish politicians in the North and in the Republic do not seem too keen on the possibility, but British ones seem quite open to it. A by-product of Boris Johnson’s election victory is that, customs-wise anyway, there will now be more of a border in the Irish Sea than between the North and the South of Ireland. Reunification will come to make more practical sense—even if its specter will raise all kinds of problems and challenges for the political class.