Posted tagged ‘David McWilliams’

Is the party over?

January 31, 2011

The latest opinion poll figures in Ireland suggest that independent candidates in the forthcoming general election may do very well: they are currently scoring 15 per cent, only one percentage point lower than Fianna Fáil. If this kind of support is maintained on the actual polling day it could, at least in theory, produce a record number of independent TDs (members of the Dáil, i.e. the lower house of parliament). This would create a completely different political composition of the country’s parliament from that of any other state (apart from Canada) of which I am aware. What does this signify, and does it matter?

Historically independent members of parliament are often elected on single-issue platforms, often to do with local services in the constituency. Where a government does not have a clear majority independent parliamentarians can become crucial to sustaining them in power, and often this is achieved through bargaining that involves the provision of resources or facilities for the area or region. A quick study of the parliamentary career of Jackie Healy-Rae in Ireland illustrates this point.

At a time when political parties are not held in very high esteem the electorate may be more willing to experiment with independents, and may even find them a better proposition. But in fact they distort the political system, because for the most part at least they are unpredictable. Taken as a group they do not represent a recognisable political direction, and so they do not help in the maintenance of sustainable and coherent policy-making, which at this point in our economic fortunes is particularly necessary. They also may, in some cases at least, represent the pursuit of pork barrell practices to support one area at the expense of others.

An interesting development in Ireland was the recent attempt to assemble a group of independent candidates (including journalists and commentators David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole) and allow them to run under one organisational umbrella, to be called ‘Democracy Now’. However, the individuals who would have made up that group have wildly differing views on almost all matters imaginable, ranging from the fairly extreme right to the very radical left. They would have been committed to a common goal of political reform and the renegotiation of the recent Irish bail-out, but it would have been difficult for them to unite around substantive principles even in those contexts. In the event the group has decided not to proceed, and only one of them, Shane Ross, seems determined to stand as an independent.

It is my view that independents representing university seats in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house, have played a very valuable role. But the game in the Dáil is a different one, and for me at least there is no evidence that independent TDs enhance democracy and progress. I therefore hope that current opinion poll figures turn out to be wrong. In the end, the capacity of citizens to have their political priorities reflected in government will depend on their ability to vote for a manifesto held in common by a group large enough to form an administration. I hope that the political parties are not finished yet.

Casting off the Euro?

February 22, 2010

On 1 January 1999 the Euro replaced the European Currency Unit (a kind of virtual currency that you could trade for certain purposes but which was never legal tender anywhere), and on the same date the Euro became the official currency of a number of EU member states, which collectively make up the ‘Euro zone’.  Today the Euro is the currency of 16 EU member states and five non-EU countries. It is the second largest reserve currency in the world, and the Euro zone is the second largest economy (if you feel you can call it that).

Of course as we all know, Ireland was in the Euro from the start. I wasn’t in the country in January 1999, but when I arrived back in 2000 I was struck at the low level of ‘Euro-consciousness’. Back then the currency in the shops was still the Pound, and when occasionally I asked people whether they knew how much an item they were just buying in that currency would cost in Euro I was always amazed to discover that pretty well nobody had any idea or cared much. When the Euro eventually appeared as notes, coins and the balance on your current account in January 2002, it did so without very much fanfare; people just got on with it and the currency became the money in our pocket. You couldn’t help contrasting that with the convulsions caused by the Euro in the United Kingdom, where it isn’t even the currency.

But the relaxed way in which we adopted the Euro also signifies, I suspect, our lack of any close relationship with it here. In fact, we don’t seem to feel strongly about our currency. When the Irish Pound separated from the Pound Sterling in 1979 there was equally no big noise, and then when we lost it there wasn’t as much as a collective shrug or sigh of relief. It just happened. As a nation, we don’t seem to identify culturally with our currency. But one side-effect of this is that we don’t really debate or think about what it means. I recently asked a well educated friend what the issues were, in his opinion, in being part of the Euro zone, rather than having a separate currency. He thought for a moment, and suggested it was not having to change money when travelling to France.

But in reality that really is the very least of it. The significance lies, on the one hand, in having a currency which is less vulnerable to speculators aiming specifically at our economy, and on the other hand, not having independent monetary tools we can use at particular points in an economic cycle. So for example for much of the over-heated Celtic Tiger years our interest rates were too low because that suited Germany better (but probably worked against us). But then again, as Euro members we haven’t been buffeted around in quite the same way as Iceland has been over the past year or two.

But now some commentators, including David McWilliams, are suggesting that Euro membership is preventing us from staging a quicker recovery, because it doesn’t allow us to devalue our currency in order to become competitive. He has been beating this drum for a few weeks now. But when I ask people to comment, their eyes glaze over and they talk about football. We still cannot work up an interest, and if McWilliams is intending to start a national movement I doubt he’ll manage it. As it happens, I don’t think he is right anyway, but I do believe that we should have a better sense of what this currency union means for us and what we should be doing with it, or without it as the case may be. There are few things that are more important, and we should be much more active in our grasp of the issue. I have seen no significant expert response to the kind of talk McWilliams is promoting, and maybe it’s time there was.


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