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What has democracy done for you lately?

Government by lottery? Why not?

Government by lottery? Why not?

Antiquities have been the news in recent weeks. After being closed since the US-led Invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad re-opened, having recovered up to one third of the 15,000 or so priceless artefacts that were looted in the days and weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Further north, pictures emerged of members of ISIS using sledgehammers to destroy a different set of priceless artefacts in the equivalent museum in Mosul. That these events occurred within days of each other is co-incidental, but they remind us that Iraq is still caught in the “1 step forward, 2 steps back” loop that characterises so much of its recent history.

For the purposes of this article, it is worth noting that prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein, both these facilities were open, well-funded, protected by State security forces and under no threat of looting or destruction.

Unfortunately, museums weren’t a priority in the ensuing US invasion, and the preservation of their history was added to the long list of sacrifices Iraqis had to make for the gift of western-style democracy.

Iraq is not the only example of where enforced democracy has gone spectacularly wrong. In 2013, UK, French and American armed forces put an end to the regime of Muammar Gaddaffi in Libya, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to celebrate. Within 2 years, ISIS showed up there too, beheading Christians on a beach looking out across the sea to southern Italy.

Egyptians too have experienced the reality of political freedom for which they were not ready. After forcing the resignation of their perennial President, Hosni Mubarark, they decided to plunge themselves into a civil war, as one leader after another came and went without being able to turn Egypt in Surrey overnight.

Meanwhile in Syria, where the current regime as so far managed to resist a popular uprising, the expansion is ISIS is meeting its most stubborn resistance.

For many in the Middle East and North Africa, democracy has been like a dose of chemotherapy to treat a common cold. The regimes under which they lived all their lives were brutal and repressive, but the vacuums exposed by the removal of those regimes are being filled with extremism, not the rubrics of sophisticated self-governance that we are accustomed to in the west.

Many commentators warned of this outcome before the West began its project of benevolence in the ancient world, but such arguments wilted before the certainty that democracy was always the least-worst option, because it devolved power to the people, who must surely know best how to manage their affairs. The fact that the people in these places had no experience of democratic responsibility didn’t seem to matter.

Indeed, extending this critique of western democracy to western nations themselves exposes an ever decreasing certainty that self-governance has lived up to the promise heralded by the defeat of Europe’s 20th century dictators. In fact, it could be argued that our blind faith in democracy has more to do with the sacrifices of the past rather than objective analysis of its merits and demerits.

In 2 years time, US voters will go to the polls to elect a new President. Candidates on either side or the Democratic/Republican divide have already declared their interest. The most notable Republican candidate to is Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush, and brother of former President George W. Bush. The most notable Democratic candidate is Hilary Clinton, wife of 2 time President Bill Clinton.

If democracy is supposed to be “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, it seems preposterous that in a country of 270m people, the possibility exists that 5 of the last 7 Presidents will come from just 2 families. Political lineage this tight would put a 16th century European monarchy to shame.

The rise of political elites is not the only issue with democracy in its current form. One hundred years ago, in advance of the rising tide of democracy around the world, income inequality was greater than it is today. As the decades passed, and people became more accustomed to self-government, income inequality began to narrow. Democracy seemed to be making a difference. However, since the 1980s, the gap has begun to widen again, and will probably soon reach the same level as 100 years ago.

The cause of this is public debt, which has grown like a toxic plume on political waters that democracy promised would be clean and pure. Politicians, ever-eager to convince voters that they can best manage their affairs, indebt their nations to stay in power, using the funds to keep people happy rather than grow their economies. The result is that the lenders (the wealthy) see a greater rate of return on their lending than the rate of growth in economies to which they lend, which expands their wealth over and above that of the average citizen.

Thomas Pickety has expanded on this is his now famous “r > g” formula, which dictates the rich will continue to get richer for as long as the average Joe Soap is allowed to borrow money from them, but instead of focusing on the mechanisms that permit this (namely sovereign debt), Pickety’s acolytes instead suggest some grand conspiracy in which a cabal of politicians and bankers plot the demise of civilisation.

Wealth and money are problems enough with self-governance, but these pale in comparison to even more complex problems like how we ensure our planet is habitable in a couple of hundred years . Its true that previous generations had to deal with very big problems (eg world wars) but ours is the first generation which has had to deal with a pan-national problem on which a clock is ticking.

Thus far, the democracies of western Europe have made inverse progress on dealing with Climate Change (emissions are still rising), because telling people that they have to use less, or more expensive, energy simply doesn’t fit with day to day requirements of electoral politics. Conversely, the country that is making the most progress in reducing emissions and planning for a post-carbon world is China, where there has never, ever been a contested election.

If your starting point is that the people who want power the most are the people you least want to wield it, democracy as a system of government is fatally flawed. Politics in the 21st century is an exercise in media management, which means that the politicians with the most money are those most likely to succeed. To go back to Jeb Bush, the media in US is currently more concerned with how much money he is raising rather than how he is proposing to govern the country.

It might be interesting to compare the process of electing governments to the process of deciding whether an accused person is innocent or guilty of a crime. In a jury trial, jury participants are carefully screened to confirm that they are not known to or involved in the life of the accused or the victim, to ensure that the decisions of the jury are totally impartial and based on evidence alone.

If we allowed the same rules to apply to jury selection as we do to Government, we’d have juries populated by people who were intimately involved with either the victim or the accused, and the outcome of the trial would depend not on the evidence presented but the composition of the jury.

Leaving aside everything we know about politics, if we objectively analyse alternative systems of running countries, in truth, many of us would choose a system in which those selected to perform the task of governance were entirely impartial, and would make governance decisions solely on the basis of evidence rather than hearsay or articles of faith.

A precedent for such a system of governance exists. Sortition refers to governance in which legislators are chosen by lottery. In such a system, there are no political parties, no political funds, no electoral promises or manifestos, no pork barrel spending projects and no whip systems. The people chosen to legislate are presented with evidence and make decisions on the basis of that evidence. At the end of their term, they are replaced by another group of legislators, again chosen by lottery.

Of course, like any system of government, Sortition also has its flaws. There is a supposed absence of legitimacy, in that laws passed by democratically elected politicians may be more widely accepted than laws passed by legislators chosen by lottery. This presumes that people’s national inclination to abide by the law is based on democratic legitimacy, rather than a more fundamental acceptance of rules based society, and ignores the fact that many laws passed by democratically elected politicians are widely flouted.

The is also an argument of accountability. Democratically elected politicians will typically have to renew their electoral mandate, and as such take account of the views of those who elected them when making legislative decisions, which is the bedrock on which parliamentary democracy is built.

However, when faced with decisions in which the national interest is at odds with some local sectoral interest, politicians will frequently place the need to be re-elected above the national interest, which is at odds with the design of self-governance. Sortition removes this flaw, because the a legislator chosen by lottery will never have to seek re-election.

If we go back to our starting point, that  the people who want power the most are the people you least want to wield it, Sortition ticks a lot of boxes. In fact, Sortition establishes exactly the opposite situation: people who are selected by lottery to govern probably have no interest in governing, which makes them exactly the most suitable people for the job, in exactly the same way that people who have no association with the accused in a trial are exactly the right people to pronounce on whether they are innocent or guilty.

Politics as we know it is currently caught in a downward spiral. Elections are no longer fought on the basis of competence or vision, but on the basis of which candidates can lie most passionately about doing the exact opposite of what the sitting government is doing, even if that is totally at odds with the ideals of the candidate doing the lying (Socialists opposing property taxes is a good example).

This is the nature of democracy in the media age. Power can only be achieved by deception, and deception is best practiced by those who long most to wield power. As each government comes and goes, and the party that forms it gets found out of lying through its teeth, the electorate becomes more and more cynical, and more and more open to extremes.

In Europe we tend to view extremist as something foreign and historical, that could never happen in places like Berlin or London or Rome ever again. Residents of Mosul probably felt the same way when they were visiting their museum and libraries less than 15 years ago.

Images of your disappearing natural heritage

The Chairman of the Turfcutters and Contractors Association, Michael Fitzmaurice, has been elected to Dail Eireann.

Fitzmaurice is opposed to the preservation of any raised bog anywhere in the country, despite the fact that only a tiny fraction or our raised bogs remain intact. Specifically, he is opposed to a ban on peat extraction from 53 raised bogs which have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation. He is supported in this by Luke Flanagan MEP.

Fitzmaurice believes that the mechanical extraction of peat, which industrial equipment, should be allowed to continue unabated.

There are some images of what the Michael Fitzmaurice wants to see continue in landscape of rural Ireland.Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 21.54.08 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 21.59.04 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 21.59.30 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 22.00.02 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 22.00.17 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 22.00.41 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 22.05.33 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 22.06.00 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 22.06.25 Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 22.06.49

 

michael-fitzmaurice

Coping with Fear of Flying

Don't let go...!

Don’t let go…!

I’ve been afraid of flying since I had a nasty landing at Gatwick Airport in 1992.

That’s over 20 years ago, but I’ve continued to fly since. I’ve learned a lot about coping with my fear, so I thought I’d share my experience and techniques.

The first thing to say is to forget the statistics.

People who are afraid of flying know that flying is statistically safe, but that’s like saying to someone who has a morbid fear of spiders that spiders can’t kill you. We’re not dealing in logic here. We dealing with a disorder, and logic doesn’t enter into disorders (disorder = absence of order).

The second thing to say is that you will never overcome your fear of flying, and that you need to accept that.

You are afraid because your mind has decided that the only thing keeping the plane in the air is the fact that you are afraid it will crash, and that as soon as you stop being afraid, it will hurtle to ground. You have convinced yourself that once your presume everything is going to be OK, fate will conspire realise your worst fears.

So, once you accept that fear is going to be part of your flying experience, you can get on with minimising that fear, and finding a “sweet spot”, which is a point in your subconscious where you are sufficiently afraid to keep the plane in the air, but sufficiently relaxed not to try and jump out the window.

Here’s how I hit my “sweet spot”, and how I regain it when events throw it off kilter.

Get a window seat

One of the reasons you are afraid of flying is that you no control over your situation. When you’re driving a car, you can stop; when you’re on a train, you can get off at the next stop; but when you’re on a plane, you’re all in. Once the door closes, there is nothing you can do until it opens again.

Having a window seat removes some of the uncertainty. You can see what’s going on around you, you can see how far you are off the ground, you can scan the horizon to ensure their are no other planes about to crash into you.

That little bit of extra information removes some of the mystery of what is going on around you, making your lack of control slightly more tolerable.

Also, on a clear day, or even above a cloudscape, the views from an airplane can be spectacular, and take your mind off your fears.

Avoid early flights

If you’re like me, you’re at your most alert first thing in the morning. Your senses are heightened, and any worries or stresses that were temporarily suppressed while you were sleeping have suddenly reappeared with renewed vigour.

This makes it harder to cope with your fear of flying. Try to travel later in the even instead. After grinding through another day you’ll be more relaxed and at ease, which will help you to deal with the stress of flying.

Get to the airport early

This goes back to the control issue. People who have a fear of flying generally have a routine, and if they don’t have enough time to get through it, it can lead to heightened anxiety. Always give yourself time to go through your routine.

Arriving early also gives you more time to acclimatise to the various sights and sounds of an airport, which can make the flight itself less intimidating.

Think of your destination

If you’re travelling on pleasure rather than business, the arrival of your flight is something to look forward to, whether you’re on your outbound leg or returning home. When bad thoughts start to take over, force yourself to think about the great holiday you’re going to have, or the prospect of being tucked up in your own bed again.

Take (legal) drugs

Don’t discount drugs. Go to your GP and ask for a few valium tabs for your fear of flying. GPs get this request all the time, and are happy to oblige. I generally take 10mg of some form of valium (Xanex, Anxicalm) about 1 hour before the flight takes off. If you were to take that during a normal day, it would put you to sleep, but in a situation where you are feeling a lot of anxiety, it just brings you back down a bit. You will be still be able to function normally.

Take a nip of brandy

Again, this is one for pleasure trips. I have a little mouthwash bottle, that I half fill with brandy before I fly. I put this is my see-through toiletries bag so that I can get it through the security check (it looks like mouthwash). Just as the plane is taking off, which always the worst bit, I take a little swig. Taking valium and brandy probably isn’t a great idea for everybody, but in moderation, it works for me.

Look for signs on take off

Take off is always scary. As the plane lumbers along the runway it seems improbable that it can haul itself into the air, and when it finally does, you convince yourself that its going to start struggling under the weight of all those people and bags and tumble out of the sky into the nearest housing estate.

To get over this, decide on a few identifiable signs that you can concentrate on during take-off, and as each one becomes apparent, your anxiety will gradually diminish. Here’s a few ideas:

Clearing the airport apron; stowing of the landing gear; getting to a height where the airplane has enough momentum to glide away from trouble; getting to a height where cars appear to be moving very slowly; first turn of the airplane to the right or left (pilot is happy to continue); cabin crew start moving around the cabin; seat belt sign goes off

 Listen to music

Sit down some evening and buy some music on your smart phone specifically for flying, and get some bud earphones (you can use these with your phone in airplane mode during take off and landing). Relaxing music is best, but go with whatever works for you. I never thought I’d be calm enough to listen to music, because I wouldn’t be able to hear signs of trouble, but its easier than you think, and definitely takes your mind of the flight. A particular favourite of mine is “Flight over Africa” by Joel McNeely. Listening to that and watching the sky flow by through the window is actually quite a pleasant experience.

Have a drink

When the trolley comes around, have a drink. People have been using alcohol for centuries to sooth anxiety. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.

Try to have a conversation with someone

If you have enough to drink, this is inevitable. It really does help. Everything about fear of flying is in your mind, so if you can distract yourself, the flight will always pass quicker.

Look for signs on landing

Like take-off, landing is the a portion of the flight that gives heightened cause for concern. As the plane slows, you feel like its going 20 miles per hour, and that whenever it banks to lines up with the runway, its just going to keep turning until and it eventually stalls and spirals into ground. You’re aware that the landing phase generally takes about 20 mins, but that 20 minutes seems to last for about 4 hours.

There are 2 things I do during the phase of the flight. The first is to keep watching the cabin crew. This is the busiest part of the flight for them, and they’re generally shuffling about and concentrating on their jobs rather than the passengers.

Cabin crew fly hundreds of times per year, so if something is not normal, they’re going to know about it. If you keep watching, and seeing that they are not in any way distracted by the progress of the airplane as it makes its descent, you can be pretty confident that things are going according to plan.

The second thing I watch for are cars. Airports are always bound in by major road networks, which accommodate traffic 24 hours per day. I always watch out the windows for the first sight of cars moving on the road. When I can see cars moving, I know the airplane is close enough to the ground to get through any malfunction. This may or may not be true, but its a waypoint that you are guaranteed to see, so use it.

And when things don’t go so smoothly….

Once you are on the plane, and its in air, and gliding smoothly along, your fear is generally manageable, and while the flight continues humming along, it may even subside.

And then there’s a slight bump, and then another, and then a it of trundling, and then PING!, “the captain has switched on the seatbelt sign”, and suddenly all your anxiety control techniques go out the window.

Turbulence is something that anxious flyers live in dread of. We know that a bit of turbulence is not going to cause the airplane to crash, but we also know that very heavy turbulence, although rare, can be dangerous, and that every little bit of turbulence might be a precursor to the that type of turbulence.

Its a control thing again, the fact of not knowing, and having to expect the worst, even though the worst never seems to happen.

My technique for dealing with turbulence is a little bit strange, but it is the most effective in my armoury of techniques.

It comes from a story a pilot told me about then they were learning to fly. During one of his earlier lessons, he encountered a his first bout of turbulent air. His instinctive reaction was to seize the controls and try and compensate for the bowing and jerking of the aircraft as it moved through the air.

His instructor let him grapple with this impossible task for a few minutes and then told him to let go of the controls, and allow the aircraft negotiate its own way through the turbulence. When he did this, the aircraft levelled out, and while the turbulence was still having an effect on its course, its general progress was a lot more stable.

I apply the same principle when turbulence heightens my anxiety. My instinctive reaction is to stiffen up, and grip the armrests even tighter than I already him. But what I’ve learned to do recently is the exact opposite. I now force myself to loosen up completely, from my toes to my fingers. I lift my arms slightly off the armrests, my feet slightly off the ground and close my eyes. I imagine myself as the airplane, floating along allowing the air to take me where it needs to.

Yes, the odd jolt requires me to concentrate harder, and I’m pretty sure than I won’t be able to sustain the illusion through really heavy turbulence, but for the general run of the mill turbulence that your experience on any flight, this really does help.

That’s also pretty much the last advice I have. If you want one takeaway from this, let it be that you should aim to accommodate your fears rather than try to overcome them. As I explained at the beginning, your mind is welded to the idea that your fear is the only thing keeping the airplane in the air, so you can never escape from that.

Once you accept that your fear is part of you, like a birthmark, you can learn to live with it, and keep flying, which is all you really want.

 

 

 

 

 

Europe – Where now? Part V

Part IV – Shifting Sands | Part V – Children in the Trenches

Children in the Trenches

Just outside Beaumount-Hamel, on the banks of the River Ancre in Picardy in France, the Canadian Government maintains a permanent memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment, who suffered 85% causalities on July 1st 2016, as they attempted to storm nearby German trenches on the first morning of the Somme offensive.

Looking to the future, over the lip of a trench

Looking to the future, over the lip of a trench

The soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment, who had volunteered from practically every fishing village along the Newfoundland coast, were victims of both circumstance and incredibly bad luck.

Their planned attack was part of a wider attack along the entire front, but due to delays and various reverses, the other units who were supposed to attack at the same time were unable to do so.

Furthermore, the Newfoundlanders were not able to move up to the forward trenches, due to congestion from earlier attacks, and were forced to go over the top from a trench several hundred yards to the rear of the front line. These difficulties were compounded by the poor standard of field communications, where prevented seniors commanders from informing the unit to postpone its attack.

The result was that when the citizen soldiers of Newfoundland climbed out of their trench, they were the only unit visible from the enemy’s trenches, drawing fire from German machine gunners and artillery along a front of almost half a mile. They were also exposed for considerably longer than was necessary, having had to attack from a trench in the rear, which unknowingly silhouetted them against the skyline behind them.

Within 20 minutes, the unit was practically wiped out. No man reached his objective. Of the 780 men who had gone over the top, only 110 survived unscathed, and only 68 were available for roll call the following day.

The memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment is unique in the catalogue of memorials in the area of the Somme Offensive.

The area of the front across which the unit advanced was purchased by the Canadian Government shortly after the war, and is preserved today in much the same condition as existed at the end of the war. This includes the network of trenches which were used in the offensive, through which visitors can walk and peer over the lip.

It is difficult to imagine how any soldier could have had the courage to relinquish such cover, and expose themselves to the horror of German machine gun fire, which would have been fully apparent, given that the Newfoundlanders had remained in their trenches for nearly 2 hours after the general advance began.

Of all the memorials in the area of the Somme offensive, the Newfoundland Memorial Park is by far the most popular. During my visit to the area, it was one of only two memorials (the other being Thiepval) at which I saw children on school tours. It was perhaps inevitable that their attention was divided between the mass grave beneath their feet and their mobile phones, but it was at least encouraging to see that they were there.

The children on the school tours were British, both at Thiepval and the Newfoundland Memorial. I also encountered British school tours at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, which commemorates action from the Battle of Arras in 1918.

North Eastern France is a short ferry and coach trip from anywhere in southern England, so the prevalence of British school tours is inevitable, but it nonetheless gave me pause of thought.

Of all the European Union’s member states, the UK is clearly the most reluctant. Such is the antipathy towards the Union of British voters that the Conservative Party leader David Cameron has been forced into promising on referendum on European Union membership should the Conservatives form the next British Government.

On the one hand, this antipathy is understandable. Britons fought two wars against Germany during the 20th century (not to mention wars with France during the 19th century), so ongoing harmony between these neighbours was always going to be hard won.

On the other hand, it seems illogical. Britons who died in the European wars between 1914 and 1945 died because the political structures of Europe in the early part of the 20th century were incapable of dealing with aggressive nationalism. The self-interest of nation states was more powerful than any obscure concept of unity, and only when there was no one left to fight did the idea of unity gain any traction.

Today, that vacuum has been filled. The European Union has condemned militaristic nationalism to the scrap heap of history, for now at least anyway.

As they plot their way through the trenches of the Newfoundland Memorial, tapping messages on their smartphones and joshing with their classmates, I wonder does this conundrum reveal itself to any of these children. Do they regard the lives of the soldiers who died here, some of whom were their own age, as in any way relevant to the political choices they will have to make in future years?

And if they do, either now or as they reflect on their trip at some point in the future, will they be able to distinguish the significance of unity amid the noise of day to day politics and economic reality?

Their ability to do so, and that of their peers in other member states, which seems lost on many of our current politicians, will determine whether the Union survives for their children.

Europe – Where now? Part IV

Part III – The Weight of History | Part IV – Shifting Sands | Part V – Children in the Trenches

Shifting Sands

In the first decade of the 21st Century, Europe found itself in the eye of a perfect storm.

Globalisation had slowly filtered its way into the continent’s industrial heartlands, obliterating jobs in places that hadn’t known economic privation since the end of the Second World War.

Hollande - lurching into populism

Hollande – lurching into populism

At the same time, economic migrants from Eastern Europe were appearing in towns and cities throughout Western Europe, as the initial restrictions on free movement of people, included in the Treaty of Nice for the comfort of skeptical voters, expired.

Voters began to make a link between their declining living standards and the EU, as embodied in the free movement of people rules that allowed Poles and Slovkaks live in the same neighbourhoods as they did.

Then, in 2008, the Eurozone debt crisis hit, even deeper economic contraction ensued, and the countries of the European Union divided into 2 camps.

On the one side were the apparently rogue states, who had run up unsustainable public debt, and who now couldn’t borrow any more, forcing them to borrow from their more prudent neighbours, who in returned demanded painful fiscal reforms.

On the other side were the apparently more prudent nations, who had lived within their means, and who were now un impressed with having to bail out their seemingly profligate neighbours.

Every couple of weeks, the leaders of the member states seem to be facing down a new crisis, and the value of the currency plummeted as investors readily speculated that the Euro would not be a part of Europe’s future.

The credibility of the European Unions institutions, particularly the European Central Bank and European Commission, sank to new lows, as both struggled to explain they did not have the legal remit to make the decisions the media demanded of them, and finding a solution to the crisis was the responsibility of elected politicians, not bureaucrats and central bankers.

Gradually, as painful reforms were implemented, and risk adverse investors ran out of alternatives to sovereign debt, the crisis abated, and the Euro began to recover its poise and value.

The political fallout was more sustained, however. Both left and right wing governments were unceremoniously removed from power by angry electorates, pathing the way for further discord as their successors failed to live up to their grandiose pre-electoral promises.

Most notably, the European Parliament elections of May 2014 returned the largest ever quotient of aggressively anti-EU MEPs.

In particular, both France and the United Kingdom returned a majority of hard right and anti-EU MEPs (from the Front Nationale and UKIP respectively) while the Italian populist party, the 5 Star Movement, who advocate Italy’s withdrawal from the EU, and are led by television comic Beppe Grillo, also significantly increased its presence in the parliament.

Even Germany, ever the bedrock of the European ideal, managed to return a neo-Nazi MEP.

While euroscepticism had always been present in the European Parliament, it had never previously been regarded as a threat to the political mainstream. This European Parliament elections of 2014 changed that, and now Europe’s latest batch of political leaders, most of whom have no personal recollection of horrors of Europe’s military history, were tested on their commitment to Schuman’s ideals.

The results were not encouraging. First out of the traps was the French President Francois Hollande, whose Socialist Party  had replaced the centre-right government of Nicholas Sarkosy in 2012. At the time of the European Parliament elections, Hollande’s popularity was at an all time low, after spending the 2 years since his election failing to deliver a series of spectacular pre-election promises.

In a televised address in the aftermath of the election, Hollande gushed with typical hubris:

“I am a European, my duty is to reform France and to change the direction of Europe.”

He elaborated on what he meant by “changing” Europe.

“This cannot continue. Europe has to be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary.”

Hollande’s sentiments were echoed around Europe by other political leaders, but his intervention had a significance all of his own.

Firstly, Hollande’s comments have to viewed in the context of his startling fall in popularity, and his party’s abysmal performance in the European Parliament elections. Hollande’s political difficulties had nothing to do with the European Union, and everything to do with his mismanagement of both the French economy and the expectations of French voters.

Secondly, Hollande is the leader of one the Unions largest economies, and founding members, and of a nation that has probably suffered more than any other from military conflict. It is the same nation from which Robert Schuman derived his ideal of European co-operation, having seen at first hand the potential for destruction in the absence of that co-operation.

Hollande’s lurch into anti-EU populism, in an obvious attempt to shore up his political future, is a perfect example the primary threat to the future of the European Union, namely that Europe’s current political class, both Europhile and Euroskeptic alike, are not imbued with the historical significance of European unity, and instead regard the European Union as a convenient scapegoat on which to project the political failings of the respective nation states.

If the leader of France can so readily engage in self-interest, at the expense of a political project that quite literally saves lives, many of which would probably have been French, what hope is there for the continuing existence of the European Union?

Europe – Where now? Part III

Part II – The Green Fields of France | Part III – The Weight of History | Part IV – Shifting Sands

The Weight of History

Like Robert Schuman, the politicians who formed the Governments of Europe from the 1950s to the 1980s didn’t need to visit northeastern France to be reminded of the role of war in European history. They lived through it. They had seen the armies, the tragedy, the destruction: unity, if it did nothing else than prevent people shooting each other, was an easy sell.

The European Coal and Steel Community is born is the ashes of war

The European Coal and Steel Community is born is the ashes of war

The politicians who came after them, between the 1980s and the turn of the century, may not have been as haunted by the ghosts of war as their predecessors, but they understood the context in which European unity was born, and the necessity of ensuring that living standards in Europe remained at a level that would prevent European voters from again dabbling with aggressive nationalism, or the new threat of Communism.

The free trade and structural cohesion provided by the various treaties of the European Economic Community was the bedrock on which those living standards were built. Funds flowed out of industrial economies like Germany into the peripheries, and free trade ensured that consumers in those peripheries could transfer those funds back to Germany by buying German goods and services. A virtuous circle was formed, and everybody, more of less, seemed to better off.

In the early 1990s, a new challenge arose. The former Communist states of Eastern Europe became capitalist democracies virtually overnight. Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and East Germans, who for decades had contented themselves with living in grey apartment blocks, driving Trabants and watching black and white televisions, suddenly wanted to be consumers.

The Iron Curtain, which has been a political barrier from 1945 to 1992, had now become a line of economic demarcation. Those who lived on the west of the line were the sons and daughters of 50 years of free markets and political freedom, who wore sunglasses, drove BMWs and went on holiday to the Costa Del Sol; those on the east of the line were the sons and daughters of 50 years of economic planning and political repression, who had never been on holiday in the Costa Del Sol but who now desperately wanted to go on holiday in the Costa Del Sol.

The model of European unity, based as it was then on a set of loosely enforced economic rules, which had worked quite well for the people of western Europe, was suddenly confronted with 200m new consumers on its eastern borders, who for the moment were content with their newly discovered political freedom, but who sooner or later would start demanding their share of Europe’s riches.

Europe had to act. European economic unity was based the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, but the model was still imperfect in many ways. Enforcement of rules was patchy, and left open to interpretation in a way that could easily be manipulated by member states, causing tensions and trade distortions. Monetary policy was also hampering trade, in that fluctuating currencies and interest rates in both member states and regions was causing distortions in the flow of capital.

These deficiencies could be tolerated in the 12 member European Community that existed in 1989, but if that Community was to expand to incorporate the nation states of Eastern Europe, the number of which was increasing all the time, more structure, more enforcement and more commonality would be required.

In short, Europe would have to become both a political and economic union, because the level of economic unity required to prevent east and west getting annoyed with each other could only be achieved on the basis of pooled political sovereignty.

The Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam followed and by the turn of the century, Europe had itself and fully fledged political Union, with a common currency controlled by a pan-national Central Bank.

By 2004, the Treaty of Nice had permitted the accession of 10 of the former communist states of Eastern Europe to join the European Union. Further states joined in the years that followed, and in 2009 the Treaty of Lisbon made the final adjustments to the structures and institutions of the European Union to allow for collaboration between a greatly expanded number of nations states.

The challenge of the early nineties had been dealt with, painfully at times, but dealt with nonetheless.

Eastern Europeans moved west into jobs and houses in France, Germany and the UK, and went on holidays in Spain. Western companies opened offices in Krackow and Budapest, and started hiring engineering graduates from universities in Prague and Riga.

Economic unity was real. It was happening and visible on every street in every town and city. It was another miracle of European history, in a place where farmers were still ploughing up shrapnel form previous wars.

And then the debt crisis hit, and another junction had been reached.

Except this time it was different.

Europe – Where now? Part II

Part I – Schuman’s Epihany | Part II – The Green Fields of France | Part III – The Weight of History

The Green Fields of France

There are very few hedgerows in the north east of France. The landscape is characterised by gently undulating ridges, swathed in a vast patchwork of wheat, corn and barley, with nothing to break the line of the horizon other than the odd church spire, wind farm or random clutch of woodland.

Picardy - a place of graves

Picardy – a place of graves

Looking out across the land from the crest of any ridge, from where the panorama extends if every direction, you can see for miles. It’s a humbling and serene experience, which is apt, given the much of the land is a vast, unmarked grave.

Between 1914 and 1917, the armies of Germany, France and Britain rolled back and forth across this area multiple times, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake that is unimaginable to most people alive today.

In 1914, the juggernaut of the German Imperial Army rolled up to the valley of the river Marne, threatening the outskirts of Paris, before being stopped by their own incompetence and a desperate rearguard action on the part of the French.

During 1915, the Allied and German forces tried desperately to outflank each other, gradually extending their field of conflict out towards the English Channel and the Swiss border.

With nowhere left to fight, the front settled into place, and the pursuit of the elusive breakthrough became all consuming. The Germans tried first, at Verdun, and were pushed back. The British tried next, at the Somme, and lost 20,000 men in a single day July 1st 2016.

Thirty miles of front changed hands twice over the next 12 months, at a price of tens of thousands of young, vigorous lives. There was scarcely a community in Britain, France of Germany who was not affected by the deaths of sons, brothers and husbands. The nation state had literally started eating itself from the inside out, and worse was to follow 30 years later.

I visited northeastern France in June 2014, 100 years after the fighting of the Great War first broke out. The various sites of battles have become tourist attractions, but it would be wrong to think of them as bustling, vibrant places with rows of buses parked outside.

Cemeteries are dotted all over the landscape. Their distribution seems random, but most were started during the war, at locations close to where fighting was taking place. A cemetery in the middle of a field of wheat may seem a bit odd, but 100 years previously there was no wheat in that field. If was cratered morass of death and destruction, bordered on each side by a network of trenches. The armies didn’t have the time or resources to remove bodies to cemeteries in tranquil locations in the rear. They buried their comrades where they fell, and those cemeteries persist today.

Inside the gate of each cemetery, there is a strong box, which holds a directory of the graves in the cemetery, and a visitors book.

In one particularly remote cemetery, close to what was known as the Munich Trench, I found that the last signature in the book was from a week before, and the one previous to that from another week before that. In fact, there were only about 10 signatures during the year 2014.

It was not a surprise to me that some of these cemeteries are so infrequently visited, but in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, and in June, it was more of a disappointment than I had anticipated.

The shadow of war, which for decades had stretched across the European consciousness, seemed to have receded entirely. This terrible conflict, which happened when my grandparents were children, seemed almost prehistoric, having no more relevance to the lives and politics of Europeans today than that the diet of the Tyranasaurus Rex.

Walking along the rough farm tracks around Beaumont-Hamel, or Serre, of Fricourt, which thousands upon thousands of so-called “citizen” soldiers, many of whom had never experienced combat before, died on the first day of the Somme offensive, it is not uncommon to come across a shard of rusting metal, dug up at some time over the last hundred years by a plough.

This Iron Harvest – of shrapnel, shell fragments and general detritus of war – is everywhere in the area of the Somme offensive. A special unit of the French Army is permanently stationed nearby, to diffuse unexploded shells, and farmers receive instructions regarding how to handle ordnance that is unearthed by their machines.

Turning a corner here and there, it is not uncommon to find a small pile of spent shells, and local cafes and bars display battlefield curios in the same way that Irish pubs display whiskey jugs and vintage Guinness posters.

It’s a vivid, tactile and ominous reminder that war in Europe is still a huge part of our most recent history, and that the political, social and economic forces that conspired to bring about both the Great War and World War II, although abated, still exist today.

Europe – Where now? Part I

Part I – Schuman’s Epihany | Part II – The Green Fields of France

Schuman’s Epihany

“The European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others. The 19th century saw feudal ideas being opposed and, with the rise of a national spirit, nationalities asserting themselves. Our century, that has witnessed the catastrophes resulting in the unending clash of nationalities and nationalisms, must attempt and succeed in reconciling nations in a supranational association. This would safeguard the diversities and aspirations of each nation while coordinating them in the same manner as the regions are coordinated within the unity of the nation.”

Robert Schuman, 1949

Robert Schuman - father of the EU

Robert Schuman – father of the EU

It isn’t easily done, but in this extract from a speech given in Strasbourg in 1949, the then French president, Robert Schuman, considered by many to be the father of the European Union, managed to sum up the breadth of 200 years of European history in a single thought.

The extent of Schuman’s vision is considerable. Even prior to the end of the war, after 4 years of Nazi occupation of northeastern France, and the further invasion of the “free” French zone in 1944, Schuman was already speaking about the need for structured unity in Europe, which would include Germany.

His analysis of recent European history is strikingly accurate.

In 19th century Europe, the age of divinely invested empires was beginning to crumble away, as subjected peoples began to organise around the concept of a the nation state, in which they found the necessary resilience to endure the painful transition from imperial repression to political freedom.

Having invested so much sacrifice in their infant nations, the peoples of Europe would thereafter defend them with their lives, which provided the necessary foundation for a string of totalitarian regimes to plunge Europe into successive wars between 1914 and 1945.

Nationalism, which had once been the key to unlock so many chains, had become a poison, which Europeans couldn’t get enough of, even when they were dying in their millions.

In was in this context that Schuman’s epiphany occurred.

Put simply, Schuman, who had witnessed German, French, British and American armies roll forward and back across his country 4 times in less than 30 years, conceived that the only way to prevent further war between Europeans was to unlock the “fortress” of the nation state, and replace it with the concept of “supranational” collaboration, the mutual benefits of which would always outweigh lure of aggressive nationalism.

Schuman’s powers of persuasion were such that his ideas began to take hold, and Europe began to unite, through the gradual transition from the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 to the European Union that we know today.

In that time, no armed conflict has occurred within the borders of the nations who have adopted Schuman’s vision, despite the ever destabilizing threat of the Soviet Union, various economic ups and downs and a terrible war in the Balkans on the very periphery of the European Union’s borders.

Moreover, the political ideology of the European Union has become the gold standard for peoples in other parts of the world who continue to suffer the sort of oppression that Europeans have long since forgotten.

Political, cultural, economic and religious freedom are the hallmarks of European governance, taken for granted by Europeans in a way that would have been imaginable to their immediate ancestors, many of whom lived in fear of being shot on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality or religion of their parents.

By the end of the 20th centruy, the future of Europe appeared to have become uncomplicated. The formula, so painfully unearthed, was beautifully simple: stick together and nobody gets hurt. Or at least, that’s how it should have been.

The complication is economics, in that the economic profile of Europe in the post-war era is very different to that of today.

While Europeans of late 19th and early 20th centuries discovered their love of the nation state, nationalism alone was never enough to plunge Europeans into war. Had everyone had a job, a roof over their head and food on the table, Europeans would have been happy to indulge their nationalistic impulses by waving flags, singing national anthems and following their national football teams.

In the 1930s, in the teeth of the Great Depression, that wasn’t the case, and having successively used their nation states to resist the dynastic oppressors of the 1900s, Europe’s impoverished millions now turned their guns on their neighbours, encouraged at every step of the way by popular dictators who convinced them that their various problems were the fault of people who lived on the other side of random lines drawn on a map.

Hundreds of millions of deaths later, Europe had been destroyed to the point that their was simply no one left to blame, and the US, having realised that if it would continue to suffer by proxy if it continued to ignore Europe’s proclivity to war and dictatorship, decided to rebuild Europe in such a way that economics and nationalism would never again achieve the high-octane mix of the 1930s.

The Marshall Plan pumped billions into rebuild the European continent. Europeans would have the economic security they required to lure them away from handing power to demagogues, particularly ones who sought to convince that joining the Soviet Union was a good bet.

It was in this economic context that Schuman’s vision was able to take hold. In 1949, after a decade of privation, the Marshall billions were giving Europeans a reborn sense of security, and the idea of pooling sovereignty with their former enemies was at least palatable, particularly among political leaders who had seen the horrors of 2 European wars at first hand.

Decades of economic stability followed. Germany, France and Italy became industrial super powers. People bought houses, cars, electrical appliances and went on holidays. Communism, which policy makers had feared would spread organically through western Europe, receded to the east, sustained by the military muscle of the Red Army rather than the consent of voters.

Europe’s leaders, and peoples, for whom the memory of war was fresh and ever present, had done something remarkable. They had created peace in the world’s most dangerous place.

Unfortunately, no one lives forever, and all memory eventually fades.

 

The No Promises Movement

nopromises

I’d like to create a structured political organisation for people who want to be involved in politics and government but who don’t want to pander to the electorate.

The purpose of this is two fold.

Firstly, I think there is a large community of people in Ireland who have political experience and who recognise the importance of politics but who have become disillusioned with the boom and bust cycle of electoral politics.

These people have no political home as the only political organisations that exist are those who want to perpetuate that cycle. I think its a shame that their political experience is lost to the system. They still have a lot to offer.

Secondly, I’m concerned that as the electorate move through the parties looking for one that finally keeps its promises, and inevitably doesn’t find one, a vacuum will develop, which will be filled by some form of extremism.

This deterioration in the integrity of mainstream politics seems to be gathering pace. The “last man standing” at this point is Sinn Fein, and when they have to deal with the reality of Government, after building expectations for nearly 20 years, the backlash will be enormous.

The organisation I have in mind would be a political party, but would refer to itself as a movement, and would seek to preserve the integrity of electoral politics, rather than establish power.

It would do this by offering candidates at elections who agree to be “anti-populist”.

Candidates would be free to offer their political views on the issues of the day, and offer their ideas as to how challenges are dealt with, but they would not be able to make commitments on behalf of the movement. The movement as a whole would be policy neutral and not issue manifestos.

When challenged on how a candidate would deal with a particular issue, the candidate would refer to their personal political philosophy, and include the stock response that if they were in a position to make such decisions, they would review the evidence available and circumstances of the time, and make the best decision possible in support of the greater good.

This would obviously be challenged, and even ridiculed, but this is precisely how every decision of Government and the Oireachtas has been made over the last 20 years.

Decisions of governing political parties are always made based on circumstance (coalition, budget, economic indicators, EU Law etc), and never on foot of electoral commitments. The candidate would offer this response.

Clearly, this would offer very limited chance of electoral success, but again, that would not be the purpose of the movement. The movement would instead form a bedrock under the current process, so that an “option of last resort” exists after the mainstream parties have exhausted their credibility.

To put it more simply, if the movement can remove the ability of the average voter to say that “they’re all the same”, even if it never receives any votes, the movement will have served its purpose.

I would also hope that the movement could fulfil another more academic role, where it would promote the idea that we should continue to question the validity of the methods we have established to govern ourselves.

I think it is dangerous to accept the consensus that electoral democracy is the final chapter in political history. A movement such as I’ve described could organise talks and seminars on this basis, and promote such debate in the media.

And finally, if nothing else, it would be an interesting experiment. Given what has happened to the Green Party and Labour over recent years, the timing is also good in terms of obtaining media interest.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and written up a full constitution that describes how the movement would be established and regulated, which is key, given the discipline would be crucial to the the goals of the movement.

The constitution also deals with what would happen should one or more candidates get elected, and provides for communication mechanisms that would allow voters understand the current political outlook of the movement and its individual members.

The Constitution can be viewed by clicking here.

Ming’s voting record on water quality in Co. Roscommon

In the clip above, Luke “Ming” Flanagan TD holds aloft a jar of water, which he describes as “glorified piss”, before walking across the chamber of Dail Eireann and placing in front of Minister Fergus O’Dowd.

Over recent months, Flanagan has made water quality in Co. Roscommon one of his key campaign platforms, regularly posting pictures of dirty water sent to him by his constituents on his Facebook page.

It’s a good issue to be associated with. Water quality in Co. Roscommon is particularly poor, and has been for several decades. Boil notices are persistently in effect, to a far greater degree than any other county in the region.

Prior to being elected to Dail Eireann in 2011, Flanagan was an elected member of Roscommon County County, the body responsible for water quality in County Roscommon. He was first elected to the Council in 2004, and was re-elected in 2009.

In 2005, controversy erupted over the proposed development of a tourism resort at Lough Key, an area of pristine environmental quality in the north of County Roscommon. A consortium of Irish and Canadian investors applied for planning permission to build a 100-bedroom hotel, over 300 holiday homes and a golf course, all within the confines of Lough Key.

The planning application for the project was broken into 3 parts. In August 2005, Roscommon County Council granted permission for the first 2 parts, but postponed its decision on the third part, which dealt with 199 of the holiday homes and the golf course.

The grant of planning for the third part of the project was postponed in order to allow the applicant respond to observations that had been lodged in respect of the application.

Specifically, one of the prescribed bodies who reviews such applications, The Shannon Regional Fisheries Board, made reference to the potential impact of the golf course on the Rockingham Springs, a ground water source that supplies drinking water to hundreds of homes in the North Roscommon area.

“The Board is concerned about the chemicals and processes used in the operation of a golf course, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. Having regard to the high levels of oxidised nitrogen already found in the Rockingham Spring, the Board has serious concerns about the possible effects of fertilisers on nutrient levels within the water bodies.”

That there was concern about the potential impact of the golf course on the Rockingham Springs is also evidenced by the fact that in postponing the grant of planning permission, the Council asked the application to address the concerns raised about this impact. Specifically, they asked the applicant to:

“Indicate the various types of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides proposed to be used and a strategy to prevent them contaminating ground water

When approval was granted for the first 2 parts of the project, the grant was appealed to An Bord Pleanala by 3 parties: the Department of the Environment, An Taisce, and the Cavan Leitrim Environmental Awareness Network (CLEAN).

The content of the appeals was broadly similar: the development was contrary to the aims of the Lough Key Study 2002, which was part of the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009.

Shortly after these appeals were lodged with An Bord Pleanala, Roscommon County Council announced its intention to propose a Material Contravention (in other words, a variation) of the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009.

In this, they proposed to grant planning for the third part of the project by a vote of the Council, in the hope that An Bord Pleanala would be less inclined to uphold any appeal lodged in respect of the planning application on the basis that it contravened the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009.

In the weeks prior to this vote, CLEAN wrote to the Chairperson of the Council highlighting their concerns about the impact of the development on the Rockingham Springs. They asked that this information be circulated to all Councillors before any vote the Material Contravention took place.

CLEAN also noted their concern about the impact on the Rockingham Springs in an observation submitted in respect of the planning application.

“The proposal represents a risk to Rockingham Springs and as such, is contrary to the EU Framework Directive which seeks the protection and enhancement of water quality. Rockingham Springs supplies the town of Boyle with its drinking water. The GSI have designated this area as highly or extremely vulnerable to contamination. The fast groundwater flow rates exacerbates the threat of contamination. Concern is expressed in relation to the possible effects of pesticides and fertiliser on the local water bodies. The underlying limestones are classified as regionally important aquifers. Bacteria regularly contaminate much of the water currently derived from this source.”

On Oct 24th 2005, the Material Contravention of the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009 was put to the elected members of Roscommon County Council. 22 of the 26 members voted in favour, while 1 voted against. Flanagan was in attendance at the start of the meeting, but was recorded as absent for the key vote.

By law, Material Contraventions to a Development Plan require a three quarters majority to be carried, which in this case would have required 20 members to vote in favour. Given such strict criteria, all votes would have been vital.

Shortly afterwards, Roscommon County Council granted permission for third planning application, and the same bodies who had appealed the previous two grants appealed the third grant.

In January 2006, An Bord Pleanala upheld the appeals in respect of the first two grants, and in May 2006 upheld the appeals in respect of the third grant, at which stage the project was cancelled.

In its Directive in relation to the grant of planning for the third part of the project, which included 199 holiday homes and a golf course, An Bord Pleanala made specific reference to the threat to the Rockingham Springs water source:

“It is considered that, pending the completion of a hydrogeological study ascertaining the potential threat to the underlying groundwater which feeds the Rockingham Springs, a very important source of potable water for the surrounding area, the development of the proposed golf course would be premature and would give rise to a risk of environmental pollution. The proposed development would, therefore, be prejudicial to public health.

What is clear from all of this is that at the time when the elected members of Roscommon County Council were considering whether or not to approve a Material Contravention to the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009, there was considerable disquiet about the potential impact of this development on the water supply in the area.

That the development was controversial, and widely publicised, is beyond doubt.

When the grants of planning permission for the first two part of the projects were overturned, a local radio station, Shannonside FM, held a special live debate in the town of Boyle in which several local politicians participated.

Such was the ferocity of the debate that the the Broadcasting Complaints Commission later upheld a complaint in relation to the host of the debate, Seamus Duke, who became involved in an verbal altercation with a member of the audience who declared his support for the decision of An Bord Pleanala.

At the same time, a local newspaper, the Leitrim Observer, ran a a headline on its front page “€150m tourism project lost”, in which its author, Donal O’Grady, claimed:

“A massive €150m flagship tourism development in Lough Key Forest Park has been lost to the region after An Bord Pleanala yesterday controversially refused two applications to create what would have been Ireland’s finest eco-tourism resort.”

Flanagan was elected from the Castlerea area of Co. Roscommon, while Lough Key is in a different area, Boyle, and did not offer any public commentary of note on the issue at the time.

However, given the controversy over the development, its scale (the developers repeatedly claimed it would create 500 permanent jobs, and opened a public information office in the town of Boyle to promote it), its potential impact, and that it concerned another of his campaign platforms, tourism, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of of the consequences of the vote for or against a Material Contravention of a development plan that put an important ground water source at risk.

If he was aware, the questions remains as to why he would not make a point of voting on the proposal. Councillors have limited powers, (Material Contraventions of this magnitude are rare), so when it comes to exercising the few that they have, it seems reasonable that they would exercise their vote.

Moreover, if water quality in Roscommon was of genuine concern to him, the question remains as to why he would not make a point of voting against this specific proposal.

Given Flanagan’s behaviour in this regard, where he absented himself from vote to facilitate a development where there was a known risk to a important source of drinking water, his antics in the Dail seem contrived at best.

Sources:

An Bord Pleanala case file in relation to appeal of grant of planning for 3rd part of the project, which provides detail in relation to the grant of planning, the observations made and the appeals made. http://www.pleanala.ie/casenum/215423.htm

Minutes of the meeting of Roscommon County Council Oct 24th 2005 http://www.garrethmcdaid.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/council-minutes-oct-2005.pdf

Leitrim Observer article covering the upholding of the appeal against the grant of planning for the third part of the project http://www.leitrimobserver.ie/news/local-news/end-of-the-road-for-lough-key-plans-1-2027384

Me:

In 2011, I was a candidate for the Green Party in Roscommon-South Leitrim, the constituency from which Luke Flanagan was elected to Dail Eireann.