POLITICS AND LOBBIES
Since 1 October Ireland has had a budget, a presidential election, a constitutional amendment and controversial alcohol legislation. All this as the drama/comedy/tragedy of Brexit continued to play out in Britain. For Ireland also, Brexit is drama, comedy and potential tragedy. There is no positive aspect to Brexit for Ireland. We shall suffer; the only question is to what extent and Government policy is aimed at damage limitation.
As I write it is still not clear what form Britain’s final exit from the EU will take. An agreement was cobbled together in early November between the negotiating teams which satisfied Ireland’s (and the EU’s) special concerns regarding the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The agreement, championed by Teresa May, is probably the least unsatisfactory deal that could have been agreed but has generated uproar at a political level in the UK, with Ministerial resignations and every likelihood that the agreement will be rejected by the British Parliament.
Britain is big enough and powerful enough to survive whatever happens in the short term at least but the whole process could well “unleash demons of which ye know not” in David Cameron’s striking phrase. The Brexit lobby, elitist, loud, and stoking populist sentiments, continues to hold sway. They need to be taken down, but is May the person to do it?
Domestically, first off, the referendum to delete Blasphemy as a crime from the Constitution was carried decisively and uncontroversially on 26 October, which at least removes Ireland from the ranks of unsavoury regimes like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others of that ilk, which prescribe and carry out punishments, often draconian, on “blasphemers.” Good riddance!
The 2019 Budget had few surprises. With an election ever closer and negotiations to extend the Fine Gael Fianna Fail agreement imminent, a steady-as-you-go budget was always on the cards. There were modest increases in social welfare payments, modest cuts in income tax and modest sticking-plaster applications to the three “H’s” – Housing, Homelessness and Health. There are no magic bullets to fix any of the three, though an increase in housing supply is clearly a vital step in tackling the first two. The Health situation is chronic and likely to get worse as the population ages. Currently the children’s lobby is ascendant over that for the elderly, but with the old growing in numbers and living longer, this balance will have to be addressed sooner or later.
One lobby group DID receive a budget setback. Ireland is currently behind schedule on her commitments to combat climate change, and the environmental lobby had pushed hard for an increase in carbon tax in the budget, to the extent that the Taoiseach had announced it would happen. Enter political reality. Increasing carbon tax means hikes in the cost of petrol, home heating oil and also in the cost of solid fuels such as coal and turf, measures either socially regressive ( the poor and the elderly tend to burn solid fuel) or discriminatory against rural dwellers given the paucity of public transport outside the major urban areas. Politically a no-brainer at this time. Result: no budget carbon tax increase, to the dismay of environmentalists of every hue.
It would be difficult to find anyone in Ireland who does not accept the reality of climate change and the need to take measures to combat global warming. But actually translating this into concrete steps, particularly involving paying more and changing lifestyle is another matter. Even pointing out that Dublin is further north than Calgary cuts no ice (ouch!). Last Spring’s storms sounded a warning but not sufficient to cause a sea change (ouch again) in attitude amid widespread belief that the major polluting countries (led by Trump’s USA) are doing little or nothing nationally. Perhaps this will change when threatened heavy financial sanctions from Brussels (which could run to several hundred million euro annually) kick in after 2020, but before that there is Brexit and every likelihood of an election, hence the tardiness of politicians to act.
It would be equally difficult to find anyone in Ireland who would not agree that more should be done for Irish Travellers, generally accepted as Ireland’s most marginalised community. The Presidential Election, while it resulted as expected in an overwhelming victory for the incumbent Michael D, did throw up an interesting development – still being digested – in the performance of the runner up Peter Casey; on 1% ten days before the poll, he launched an attack on the Travellers in a radio interview. The lobby were outraged, condemning Casey as racist.
This would normally be enough to silence anyone putting a head above the parapet. But Casey, a millionaire who has spent the bulk of his working life abroad, was unfazed, stuck to his guns and broadened his attack to condemn also the “sense of entitlement “in what he termed a “welfare dependant state,” hijacking in the process one of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s pet phrases, that he stood for “those who get up early in the morning” paying for everything and getting little back. Casey finished with 23% of the vote and, significantly, 10% of the total electorate.
The PC brigade closed ranks, with politicians and the media uniting to condemn Casey and his supporters, writing off the result as a flash in the pan. Yet subsequent revelations that the bulk of local authority monies earmarked for Traveller accommodation this year have yet to be spent, indicates that there remains a problem and that as a society we have still not progressed much beyond that several decades ago when one prominent political commentator observed that everyone was agreed on housing the Travellers – the only problems were when and where.
Just prior to the budget there was finally success for one particular lobby with the passage of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which, inter alia, sets out minimum prices beneath which alcohol cannot be sold. The bill passed after a lengthy campaign which saw the health lobby pitted against the powerful drinks lobby. The legislation is a determined attempt by a loose coalition of medical and health experts to curb Ireland’s drinking culture and in particular to address the problem of binge drinking, especially by the young, through a variety of measures. These include education on the health threats posed by alcohol as well as regulations to control advertising marketing and sponsorship of alcohol, but above all through significant price hikes which will effectively end the availability of cheap alcohol.
Whether the package (including health warnings on wine bottles) will survive legal challenges and EU competition regulations remains to be seen. Ditto with regard to whether the legislation will actually change behaviour and attitudes to alcohol. The health lobby are taking their cue from the tobacco experience, where cigarette prices are now among the highest in Europe, and official consumption has slumped. But this is to ignore what has been a massive cultural shift away from smoking across the developed world, not just Ireland, and also the local booming illegal trade in counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes. And remember, in the 1980s, when disposable income was low and alcohol taxes relatively high, determined drinkers simply made their own. Home Brew anybody?