Monday 27 April 2009

Big Flu, Small Planet

A headline in the New York times read "Contagion on a Small Planet". Obviously the writer was referring to the recent outbreak of Swine Flu that is causing concern to health authorities across the world.

Something in the headline struck a chord: the small planet. Strangely enough I have often brooded on the melancholy thought that yes, indeed, our planet is terribly small. The most recent waves of Globalisation which occurred over the last 60 years in particular have truly shrunk the world. In part this is a conceit - we in the rich countries can fly almost anywhere while those in the poorer countries struggle to feed their families. But even in developing countries the numbers travelling have been growing. And if the runways in Kathmandu and Kigali are mainly used by Western tourists, the truth is that despite the inequality this a thickening of the connection between one part of the world and another.

When you have travelled a reasonable amount you begin to feel that the world is small. I haven't clocked an amazing number of air miles but I've been several times to North America, a couple of times to Asia, round a good deal of Europe, and once to Africa. Of course one trip to Africa hardly means I know the world's second largest continent. But the point is that the path is open.

And so many paths are now open on an enormous scale. Ads by travel agents convince us that nothing stands between us and the wonders of the Pyramids of Egypt, the Amazon rain forest, or the polar Ice caps, but a phone call and credit card number.

I have always been fascinated by that page in the in-flight magazine which shows the destinations which your airline serves; and filled by a mixture of amazement and horror by the number of destinations served by big airports like Heathrow. When you're at an airport the whole world seems to be on the move. You feel - or at least I do - that the whole earth has been unsettled and everyone is going somewhere else.

It is an amazing feat of technology and a triumph of the human desire for exploration and progress that we now have a world where you can pretty much get from one point on its surface to any other within about the time the whole thing takes to rotate on its axis. Amazing and triumhant yes. But also somewhat sad. It reminds of the star trek saying that space is the final frontier.

When I imagine our former earthly frontiers, the East, the West, the Dark Continent, the American West - which have been pushed into history by our intrepid explorers, I cannot suppress a faint but deep pang of nostalgia for that older world - the one that lay utterly undiscovered.

There had to be something of a spiritual vacuum at the heart of our burning desire to discover an elsewhere. The dream that beyond the frontier lay some untarnished wonder: an exotic people, a green, empty continent, an unlimited supply of gold. And now, when I visit other once far flung parts, I wonder what did the first visitors see? What vision had they or their immediate descendants for the land they were soon to make their home, or in the case of Africa and other parts, the land they were soon to exploit within an inch of its life? But above all imagine their wonder. The excitement of first setting foot in a new world. Like all journeys the expectation and the dream were probably bigger than the reality when it came.

And so we pushed back all earthly frontiers and made rapid paths - by land, sea, and air - to all corners of our world. God gave us a large planet, and we made it small.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

An Ghuí Aniar

Fuair mé teachaireacht ar maidin a chuir lúcháir ar mo chroí. Teachtaireacht inár fógraíodh gur tháinig Guth Nua ar shaol na blagadóireachta. An Ghuí Aniar ainm an bhlaig úir agus tá an chéad alt scríofa go cumasach fileata. B'fhiú go mór duit, a léitheoir dhil, cuairt a thabhairt ar an Ghuí Aniar.
Táim ag súil go mór le tuilleadh ón pheann chéanna.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Political Reform - key to long term recovery

It is only right that we should look for the cause of Ireland's particular economic crisis. After all, how else are we to repair the damage if we cannot identify the problem. Better still, how can we avoid a recurrence if we do not change whatever lies at the root of the breakdown.

Yet I think that most commentators, interest groups and politicians have failed to identify the crux of our problem. The unions blame big business, the government blames the world economy, the opposition blame the government, and for the most part the ordinary man in the street blames the bankers and the builders.

All of the above have indeed a part to play in how this sorry saga left us where we are. But as far as I'm concerned, the failure which lies at the very heart of our crisis is not one in regulation or integration into the world economy. Nor is it a failure to set remuneration for bankers which reflects accurately on value generated. No, the prime failure responsible for getting us where we are is a political failure.

Not in the narrow sense that the FF ministers who piloted the country during the boom bear sole responsibility. Certainly it is shocking that none of the said ministers has come close to even admitting that serious mistakes were made. To hear Mary Coughlan on morning Ireland it was as if she and her fellow ministers arrived in Leinster House only last week. I put this down to pure arrogance. It seems to me that the current cohort of FF ministers has been infected with a brazen, brass necked arrogance which makes them unable to contemplate, even for a second, that any one of them might be fallible. There isn't even a scent of humility left in their tired, brain dead beings. They have spent so long in the ministerial cars and arriving in for their executive meetings that they cannot imagine any other existence. It is hard to allow that they might have any inkling of what real life is in our crumbling economy, so removed are they from the harsh winds buffetting our lives right now.

So, much as I loathe the current crop of ministers, I think that our problem as a nation is broader still. It lies in the very nature of our political system two aspects of which are critical. One is our politicial structures which are clearly unfit for the purpose of twenty first century government. The second is our political culture.

Our moribund senate is a relic of some 1930s fantasy about diversity. Our tired and tiresome Dáil has become no more than a platform for the executive to announce its latest great plans. These houses make up our legislature but it barely deserves the name. Our executive makes the law, and makes it in the face of a legislature which is uterrly toothless to influence the main thust of what the government wants. As an executive, the government is almost completely immune from scrutiny.

True, the committee system has been a useful development over the decades. But it remains ad hoc and terribly uneven. It is a tangled web of undefined and overlapping interests. And for the most part, the general public has no purchase on it. There is without doubt a huge aspect of jobs for the boys.

On the whole then, our Parliament, the Oireachtas, needs a complete overhaul.

On a broad level, it is high time we attempted to break the connection between the parish pump and national office. The parochial nature of our political system is terribly debilitating. The constituency system needs to be re-thought. It is simply not good enough to say it served us well and therefore should be left alone. All political systems should evolve to meet the new requirements of democracy. One suggestion might be that we have a mixed system, partially list and partially local constituencies. No need to rewrite the constitution here, merely to point out that our current arrangement is deficient.

Leave it all to the 800 or so state agencies - a number which ballooned during the celtic tiger. The report by TASC a few years ago showed just how many important functions have been outsourced to powerful bodies with little or no accountability. Key positions still appointed not on merit or by an independent panel - but on the basis of being one of the old boys in the, largely, FF network. Fit for purpose indeed.

Then there is local government. Well it really is a joke isn't it. At present it doesn't really exist - we have local administrators rather than local government. Are we still so immature that local public servants cannot be trusted with our affairs?

Perhaps, and that leads on to a question that is even more important and intractable. Our political culture. At its core lies the notion that those in power should be able to do things their way and get their associates involved no matter what. It is a culture which is all about looking after those who gave the dig out. It is about nods and winks, and we hope fewer brown envelopes than before.

But its striking feature is the absence of a sense of civic duty, the modern concept of which includes transparency and accountability. The idea of accountability is almost completely absent from our political culture. As is the idea that those in high office are there, primarily, to serve the nation and the common good.

This inward, party-and-friends-first mentality is so ingrained in our political elite that it prevents them from rising to the occasion even in a crisis. Even in this hour of need, party and friends come first, not the common good. On Morning Ireland Mary Coughlan was accused of being all about the party. In defending herself, she unwittingly underlined the truth of the allegation: she listed out her priorities, which she pressed, included the nation. "First, my party and Fianna Faíl". Then " the good people of Donegal", and of course in her ministerial role, she was there to serve the nation. Basically, after Party and locals, the nation comes a poor last.

Who thinks that Brian Cowen is any different? Is he not, and probably the bulk of the shadow cabinet across from him, infected with the same virus?

With a blinkered, inward vision of politics and high office. With the absence of accountaility and integrity. With a lack of transparency and culpability, is it any wonder that the interests of those in power drifted so far from the interest of the nation at large?

This kind of paralysis breeds ineptitude by excluding merit and talent. And it leaves us bereft of the kind of leadership and ability that we so desperately need in the thick of a crisis.

The place to start reform therefore is not the banks or the finances - but the very nature of our political system.