Ireland

A visionary proposal to turn disused railway lines into bicycle trails deserves the full support of the government.

Kilylea Station

There is an entire genre of YouTube movies showcasing conflict between cyclists and motorists. One could spend a month watching the near-misses and altercations, many of them emanating from London, a city in which the percentage of journeys made by bike doubled between 2000 and 2012.

However this growth in cycling pales in comparison to the Netherlands where pedal power accounts for 26 percent of all journeys in most cities. Yet the Dutch have not developed a mountain of bike-versus-car road rage clips, preferring instead to develop a comprehensive network of dedicated infrastructure for safe cycling. Their bike paths are separated entirely from motor vehicle traffic. Bicycles have their own signals, their own intersections, and above all they have priority wherever they cross paths with cars. They are so safe that people of all ages from 8 to 80 use them as a daily means of transportation.

The Dutch do not wear lycra or helmets, nor do they ride carbon fiber racing bikes in order to keep pace with the traffic. They ride sturdy, upright bikes in plain clothes and cruise along at such a relaxed pace that there is no need for a shower at their destination. People in business suits come out of the office after a day’s work, hop on an ordinary bike, and casually ride home. Cycling is common, normal, and unremarkable. Train stations and city centers abound with massive parking facilities with racks containing thousands of bicycles.

Contrast this with other countries where a “bike lane” is a strip of paint at the side of a busy road and is constantly invaded by vehicles. Despite an organized movement by cyclists to politely ask drivers to move their vehicles out of San Francisco’s unprotected bike lanes, many such lanes remain essentially useless to people on bikes because they are blocked by cars and trucks.

Cities like Belfast and Dublin suffer from the same problem. The Department of Environment has gone to great lengths to paint bike lanes on Belfast’s streets, but again many of them remain under-utilized since they offer no protection to riders who are forced into traffic by motor vehicles invading the bike lanes. The Dutch have shown that the only way to keep motor vehicles out of bike lanes is with total physical separation.

The experience in cities like Belfast and Dublin is that where bike lanes are poorly designed, such as forcing riders to yield at all side roads in some places and throwing them into the path of turning vehicles in others, the few cyclists still brave enough to venture onto the road do not use said lanes. However when they are built to Dutch standards the number of cyclists using them increases dramatically. This is because the number one deterrent to cycling is safety. People in Ireland are reticent about riding bikes in large numbers because of a not-unjustified perception that it is too dangerous.

However there are people who are setting out to change this by building a Dutch style network of segregated paths designed by cyclists for cyclists. This is the NI Greenways project, an ambitious effort to turn disused railway lines into bike paths, spearheaded by Jonathan Hobbs, a cycling enthusiast.

In the 1960s, a time when the car was seen as the way of the future and the train seen as obsolete, the British government made a spectacularly short-sighted decision to close thousands of train stations and hundreds of branch lines. Ireland suffered terribly. Railways in the north were all but obliterated, leaving a gaping hole in the northwest of Ireland’s network, particularly in rural areas west of the Bann.

Today one can look at the Google satellite view and trace the remnants of old railways connecting such places as Armagh and Enniskillen. On the ground it becomes even clearer since many of the old rights-of-way remain, the platforms and abandoned stations crumbling as grass grows where the tracks once lay.

The NI Greenways project seeks to emulate the success of a campaign by Sustrans, a charity that uses volunteer labor to convert disused railways in Britain to beautiful and hugely popular cycle tracks. From small beginnings on a single 15-mile route connecting Bristol and Bath, a 14,000-mile national cycle network has spread across Britain thanks in part to lottery funding.

The NI Greenways project is still young, but has scored a few successes, such as the 9-mile Belfast to Comber greenway which opened in 2008, following the route of the old Belfast and County Down Railway. It has become immensely popular with locals. However it is still early days in a project that promises so much. Projects like the greenways deserve the full force of funding from the transportation budget, not table scraps from the lottery, a funding source that was designed for “nice-to-have” but non-essential good causes. A comprehensive bicycle network in and between towns, built to Dutch safety standards, would be heavily used and could transform the environment. Thousands of loud, dangerous, and polluting motorized journeys would be eliminated, freeing up roads for those who absolutely need to drive on them.

The public health benefits would be legion as people rediscover the joys of active transportation, deaths and injuries would be reduced, and children would regain the freedom to move around their neighborhoods independently. This should be a core government objective, not treated as a feel-good side project.

For more information about the NI Greenways project, visit www.nigreenways.com.

The Irish government's long-term plan for the country is not as visionary as it looks.

Irish governments are often in a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t position with regard to how to distribute investment. Concentrate too much on Dublin and they’re accused of neglecting the rest of the country. Distribute investment throughout the country and they’re accused of adopting the old “one for everyone in the audience” approach to buying off potential voters.

Both accusations can be unfair. Since Dublin is home to 40 percent of the country’s population, neglecting them is hardly an option, but neither is neglecting the rest of the country.

To address the issue the government has announced, with much fanfare, its Project Ireland 2040 plan. This is a national development plan aimed at putting a coherent vision around future growth. Liberal use of the word “rebalance” emphasizes the point that Dublin has reached a critical mass that is sucking in vast numbers of people from the rest of the country, and that the opportunities that attract people to the city need to be made available elsewhere.

Fianna Fail’s criticisms of the plan have been dismissed by the government as “opposition for opposition’s sake.” Michael Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, has complained about the government using taxpayer-funded “expensive marketing” to promote a plan that looks more like an election manifesto. This is somewhat harsh. In a democracy such plans require public buy-in if they are going to be a success, and it is entirely appropriate for the government to communicate its ideas clearly.

Nor is it fair for Mr Martin to criticize the government for not putting the plan to a vote in the Dail. There has already been ample public consultation over the last three years, and forty public meetings later is a bit late to be complaining about a lack of input.

So what is in the plan? It addresses ten areas.

First is the establishment of a National Regeneration and Development Agency for compact growth. The aim is to incentivize more development that is clustered together as opposed to one-off housing, or “bungalow blight,” that makes it so difficult and expensive to provide essential services. One-off housing made some sense in the days when agriculture was labor-intensive and needed large numbers of people living on the land, but today few people have a compelling reason to live in an isolated house far from any others. Elsewhere in the world, to live in the country is to live in a village where services are easier to provide.

Second is an enhanced road network to better connect towns and cities. Third is a Rural Regeneration and Development Fund of €1 billion to balance out growth between Dublin and regions, plus a National Broadband Plan to provide internet access to villages, rural areas and islands. Given the expense of building a broadband network, where delivering to larger towns makes more economic sense, this is one area where the government may have over-promised.

Fourth is a “Sustainable mobility” plan aimed at improving transport options within towns and cities. Flagship projects include the long-awaited Metro Link in Dublin, parts of DART expansion, and an overhaul the current bus system nationwide. Segregated cycling and walking facilities and networks are also included, all of which will require extensive stakeholder input. Poorly-designed bike lanes are a great way to waste money since they often go unused, but can take thousands of cars off the road when implemented properly.

Fifth is giving equal priority to encouraging local entrepreneurship as opposed to attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). If this is delivered, it will be a sensible change in policy and has the potential to make the biggest economic impact. Ireland has for too long depended on companies to do the innovating in places like Silicon Valley and then sought to attract some of the resulting ancillary jobs. While this has helped to improve employment numbers, locally-grown innovation has the potential for the next Facebook or the next Google to be an Irish endeavor. A high profile technology firm born and headquartered in Ireland would add more value to the Irish economy than the crumbs that the country currently gets from the US-based technology table.

Point six of the plan focuses on international transport links, namely airports and sea ports, and part seven deals with culture. The idea is that towns and cities need more than good roads and buildings. They need a soul, and culture is a crucial ingredient in adding to quality of life. A national cultural and sporting infrastructure plan is envisaged for towns and cities for the next decade.

Part eight is a €500m Climate Action Fund to address greenhouse gas emissions, primarily focused on the transport sector, and to shore up flood defences. Lofty ambitions here include getting half a million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, banning the purchase of diesel-only buses by July 2019, and phasing out non-zero-emission cars by 2045.

Part nine, dealing with water management, reads like a description of everything Irish Water would like to do, and interestingly the phrase “water charges” appears nowhere in the report.

Finally, part ten deals with healthcare, education, and childcare. Health gets €10.4 billion, education €8.8 billion, and childcare €0.4 billion.

When hacking through the buzzword-compliant fluff of the report, there is some good quality policy insight to be found. However a disappointing aspect is the relegation of railways in favor of roads. While some investment in roads is always welcome, it is disappointing that rail travel seems to have been treated as an afterthought. A true commitment to compact growth would have seen villages clustered around train stations such that people could potentially live in a village, work in a nearby city, and not need to use a car on a regular basis. Yet the plan spells out in great detail which roads are going to be expanded but gives railways lip service in the form of feasibility studies for high speed intercity rail and continued maintenance of existing tracks and signalling. There is not even any mention of electrification of heavy rail lines; instead we are to get more diesel-electric trains, which conflicts with environmental goals. For intra-city transport and quality-of-life improvements, bike and pedestrian infrastructure would be front and center.

Critics have said that Project Ireland 2040 is a repackaging of existing spending plans, and there is some justification to that. While it shows some areas of promise, it is not as visionary as Leo Varadkar would have us believe.

The people stand to benefit from the Public Services Card. The government should sell it to them better.

You know the drill. You apply for a library card, driver’s license, passport, or bank account, and you have to start at the top and fill in a long laborious form telling them your first name, last name, date of birth, address, and provide various pieces of evidence proving that you are who you say you are. For each document you have to complete a different form to meet the peculiar requirements of a different agency or company. At the other end, an army of bureaucrats laboriously works through all the applications and sorts out the inevitable problems that occur.

Users of online services used to face the same problem of having to complete a proprietary registration form for every website that required a login. Create an account, remember your username, and choose a hard-to-remember password. Users had to potentially remember a different password for every service. Social networks like Facebook have helped simplify this process; now many websites or mobile apps allow first-time visitors to simply register using their social media account into which they are already logged. What used to be a daunting form-filling process has been replaced with a single “Sign up with Facebook” click. Signing up for one social network can make it easy to sign up for hundreds of other apps.

Wouldn’t it be good if it were just as easy to access government services? Citizens and the government would benefit from a streamlined process whereby signing up for one government service means you can sign up for them all without having to laboriously duplicate the same data entry every time.

The Baltic nation of Estonia led the way with just such a service in 2014 with the introduction of their national ID cards which provide a government-verified digital identity to every citizen. From the moment of birth, every Estonian has a digital birth certificate issued by the hospital and their health insurance is automatically started. At the age of 15 all citizens get their physical ID card which streamlines access to banking, public transportation, voting, healthcare, signing contracts, and myriad other uses. Filing taxes takes under an hour and registering a new business is a one-minute job.

Estonia has an advantage in that its population is a mere 1.3 million, roughly the same as the greater Dublin area, and small countries can implement this kind of reform at lightening speed. Not to be left behind, Ireland has also tried to roll out a Public Services Card (PSC) that seeks to smooth out the interactions between citizens and government. Originating as a means of preventing benefit fraud, the use of the PSC has been steadily expanded to other government services and has become a requirement for first-time adult passport applicants, replacement of some lost or stolen or damaged passports, citizenship applications, driving test applications, and access to online public services such as Social Welfare and Revenue services. More uses are set to follow.

Despite the expected benefits, the well-intentioned PSC has been dealt a series of confidence-sapping blows, the latest of which was one applicant feeling humiliated when her status as an adopted child delayed the processing of her application; she had not noticed the stipulation that adopted people must produce a certificate of adoption. “It is the worst form of humiliation – Woman denied Public Services Card due to adopted status,” screamed the headline at thejournal.ie.

Concerns have been raised by civil liberty advocates that the PSC must not become a mandatory ID to be produced on demand to police. For police to accost anyone and demand their “papers please” would indeed be sinister, but the Garda Síochána are expressly prohibited from demanding the card as a form of identification. Legal experts argue that the governmnent is required by EU law to provide a solid justification for requiring the PSC as access to essential services. The flames of public disquiet are fanned by continuous media coverage of these “controversial” ID cards.

Rolling out the the PSC in Ireland may be more challenging than in Estonia, particularly if the public has a low opinion of government competence or the integrity of civic intentions, but it shouldn’t be that much more challenging if the right leadership is shown.

The British government made a botched attempt to implement a national ID system, spending $370m on it, before abandoning ship under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that took office in 2010. It would be a shame if Ireland were to follow a similar course when its smaller size makes it a perfect place to make a success of such a project.

Estonia’s implementation has not been without problems, and security vulnerabilities have required patches and updates to large numbers of IDs. Nonetheless, the system has been so popular and successful that it has been expanded to non-citizens, meaning it is set to bring in €1.5bn ($1.84bn) in net economic benefits and €340m ($416m) in socio-economic benefits by 2025 according to Deloitte, an accounting firm.

The worst thing the Irish government could do is quietly press on with implementation in the hope that protests don’t get too loud, a tactic that is sure to backfire. A better approach would be to boldly and openly talk up the many advantages of the system, preferably using Estonia as a shining example. In other words, the government should show leadership on this issue and sell it to the public to ensure that they buy into a service from which they can reap huge rewards.

Other developed countries could be a source of ideas for curing homelessness.

In November Leo Varadkar got his knuckles rapped for playing down the level of homelessness in Ireland. While accepting that it was an increasing problem, he stated that Ireland’s figures are low by international standards. The Simon Community, a charity, disputed the claim, stating that other countries use broader definitions of homelessness.

A report published in 2017 by the OECD backs up Mr Varadkar’s claims; Ireland’s homeless are 0.08 percent of the total population. The only OECD countries with lower numbers are Croatia, Lithuania, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, and most impressively Japan where apparently we are supposed to believe that there is no homelessness at all. The report has information missing for twelve countries, and there are indeed differences in the methods used to count the homeless, so the report is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Japan’s figures only count rough sleepers and not those in emergency accommodation, whereas Ireland’s figures do include those in shelters.

Nonetheless homelessness is a sensitive subject in a country like Ireland where memories of starving families being evicted from their cottages are burned into the cultural memory, and where close-knit communities find it abhorrent that anyone should not have a roof over their head.

Mr Varadkar has defended the government’s Rebuilding Ireland action plan that was launched under Enda Kenny’s leadership in July 2016. This tackles the problem on various fronts including supplying funding for social housing, acquiring vacant homes for social housing, increasing land supply including low cost state lands, allowing plans for large developments to be submitted directly to An Bord Pleanála to streamline the planning process, and many more measures.

The 2018 budget allocated €1.9 billion for social housing, an increase of 46 percent on the previous year. The aim is to get 25,000 people off waiting lists, but only 3,800 new homes will be built by local authorities. The remainder will be rented from private landlords using a Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) where rent is paid to the landlords directly by the state. Critics have been quick to point out that reliance on the private sector to fix the housing problem has not worked in the past and is unlikely to do so in the future. Eoghan Murphy, the Minister for Housing, has acknowledged that there is a heavy dependence on the private sector and it needs to be “rebalanced.”

Progress in increasing the housing supply has been frustratingly anemic. In 2015, Over 1000 social homes were supposed to be built by local authorities; a pathetic 75 were actually built. 8,000 families were supposed to be housed by HAP; 5,680 were actually housed. 2016 saw mixed results. There were supposed to be 1,500 new social housing units; 600 were built. An almost doubling of HAP funding was supposed to house 10,000 families; over 12,000 new HAP rentals were recorded. However a Public Private Partnership scheme was supposed to have 500 homes under construction; the actual figure was zero.

It is tempting to lambast the government’s lack of progress, but solving the housing shortage is not an overnight job. Actions taken now can take months or years to take effect. There is no one simple answer and no single silver bullet solution, hence the length of the Rebuilding Ireland plan and the multitude of measures laid out in it.

Other countries have many lessons to offer. New Zealand’s parliament recently passed a law banning the sale of homes to foreigners to prevent foreign speculators from getting into a bidding war that drives up prices. The impact of this in New Zealand remains to be seen and it is said that foreign buyers only affect a small part of the market, 2 to 3 percent of purchases according to various sources. However such a measure in Ireland would probably have a bigger effect. According to the Central Bank foreign institutional investors have played a bigger role in cash purchases in recent years, and cash buyers have risen to account for half of all sales, limiting the Central Bank’s ability to control the market. It would be interesting to see the effect of shutting out foreign speculators from the market.

Germany offers the lesson of locally-managed house price controls and a steady release of land for development based on population growth. This resulted in a steady decline in home prices in real terms over decades, although low interest rates in the Eurozone have helped drive prices up in the last seven years. Nonetheless, a hefty speculation tax continues to discourage people from buying homes for the sole purpose of flipping at a profit, and the German financial regulator has been given various powers such as the ability to step in and tighten up lending requirements to dampen the market if it gets out of control.

Assuming no more Garda scandals jeopardize Fianna Fail’s confidence-and-supply agreement, another Irish general election is not due until 2021. The government may be under pressure to produce results on the homeless issue, but it has time for its policies to take effect. If Mr Varadkar’s leadership fails to make progress in the next three years then Fine Gael will not deserve to lead the next government.

Whistleblowers are seldom treated well in Ireland. This is a sign of bigger problems.

Garda Logo

The brinkmanship displayed by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in recent weeks over the Garda whistleblower controversy has weakened the Taoiseach’s position to the point where a general election in the new year seems inevitable. Leo Varadkar took office among the usual optimism, coupled with bewildering international acclaim from the foreign media that seemed fascinated by the fact he is Ireland’s first openly gay head of government. Yet in his first major test he has delivered a disappointing performance. His style of leadership seems to reward loyalty over competence, and this is worrying.

While the political drama has been mesmerizing, the fall from grace of Frances Fitzgerald, who was effectively pressured to resign from her position as Tánaiste, highlights severe weaknesses in the ship of the Irish state. At the heart of the case is the abominable treatment of former Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Here was an honorable man who did the right thing by calling out Garda corruption and malfeasance. His reward for doing his civic duty was to be ostracized, intimidated, and made a victim of a horrendous smear campaign. He was set upon by the management of the police, politicians, and many more. Senior figures even sought to trump up unfounded accusations of child abuse and pedophilia, an outrageous accusation and arguably the worst label that could be applied to anyone. Murderers are almost treated more leniently in the public mind than abusers of children.

That McCabe drew so much ire from so many people in the establishment is a sign of a sickness that runs through many institutions, through the media, and may go all the way to the top of government. Gemma O’Doherty, an investigative reporter at the Irish Independent, found herself looking for a new job after she tried to get to the root of the story about her paper’s editor having penalty points conveniently wiped from his driving license. Martin Callinan, the Garda commissioner at the time, became defensive and seemed more offended by the fact that McCabe was making the allegations than the substance of the allegations themselves. Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister at the time, took an equally adversarial approach, going as far as to use Dáil privilege to make an unfounded claim (later withdrawn) that McCabe had refused to cooperate with the Garda internal investigation into the penalty points scandal, when in fact McCabe had not even been approached by the investigators.

For her part, Frances Fitzgerald and her Fine Gael colleagues have defended her actions saying that she did nothing wrong in connection to her email dealings. Fitzgerald claimed no knowledge of any deliberate smear campaign against McCabe until it became public, a claim contradicted by the fact that as far back as May 2015 she received an email indicating that the smear campaign did exist and was deliberately orchestrated. Her initial defense was to claim that she did not remember receiving any such email, then she changed the emphasis to say that she was unable to do anything about it.

Politicians have now taken to bickering over the legal technicalities of whether she was legally allowed intervene or how she could forget reading such an important email. All of this misses the core point. The smear campaign was a vile, nasty, and contemptible response to McCabe’s allegations. The correct response would have been to express deep concern at the possibility of such corruption, to promise to get to the bottom of it, to thank the whistleblowers for doing their civic duty, and to hold them up as role models that the rest of the state should aspire to. However it would seem that whistleblowers in Ireland, in whatever sector they expose wrongdoing, are still treated abysmally and can face personal ruin as their reward for doing the right thing, and they can even make an enemy of the government.

The Protected Disclosures Act of 2014, known popularly as the whistleblower act, does provide some good protections. In theory employees of any organization can report wrongdoing internally where any retaliation by management would be illegal, or can report to the media if there is reasonable expectation that reporting wrongdoing by other means will result in retaliation.

If a court finds that you were unfairly dismissed you will generally be entitled to two years’ pay as compensation, but the act allows for 5 years’ pay in compensation if you were fired as a result of making a protected disclosure. Legislation like this is all well and good, but going through the courts to seek redress is no simple business for the average citizen.

So far the Garda whistleblower controversy has claimed the jobs of one justice minister, two Garda Commissioners, one journalist, one former justice minister and Taniste, and has come perilously close to claiming the scalp of the Taoiseach himself. Where will it end? It is too early to say, but there is a real chance that more heads will have to roll in high places. This is because of a culture of circling the wagons. A culture of valuing loyalty over competence. A culture that resembles the school playground attitude to the dreaded “snitch” who betrays his friends by passing information to the teachers.

Ireland’s institutions must do better than this. They need to stop seeing whistleblowers as inconvenient tattle-tales and start seeing them as the helpful and brave citizens they are. In short, the institutional culture of the state needs to grow up.

Ireland needs to look at the bigger picture of land use if commutes are to be made easier.

In September it was announced by the Taoiseach that a 14km stretch of the M7 motorway at Naas in County Kildare will be expanded from two lanes to three in each direction at a cost of €120 million. Such announcements are typically described at “easing congestion” and reactions generally include phrases like “at last” and “badly needed.” However experience shows that this sort of project seldom leads to any improvement in the long run and usually makes traffic conditions worse.

The M50 orbital motorway surrounding Dublin was supposed to alleviate congestion, yet it has been described as “Dublin’s biggest car park” since drivers now creep along in first or second gear. Daily traffic at the M50 toll booth has risen from 109,434 vehicles in 2009 to 142,496 according to Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) and the National Transport Authority (NTA).

This is not surprising to anyone familiar with the concept of what economists call “induced demand.” When a good is provided free or very cheap at the point of use, it becomes almost impossible to keep up with demand for it. In the case of roads, induced traffic is the phenomenon of newly widened highways into a city filling to capacity in a short period of time and ending up just as congested as ever with cars plodding along at walking pace. Even if conditions are temporarily improved, people living in the city have an incentive to take advantage of lower property prices in outlying areas. An expensive home in the city is exchanged for a cheaper home in the suburbs with a slightly longer commute. However as more people do the same thing and move to the same area, the roads into the city fill up and what was once a quick commute becomes a grueling grind.

In the United States, unbelievably, authorities persevere with making roads ever wider in an attempt to keep up with demand, resulting in freeways over ten lanes wide, vast monstrosities that still seem to remain clogged with nearly stationary vehicles at commute times.

So if the solution to traffic problems is not to make roads wider, what is? Some would argue that well funded public transport can get more people into town more efficiently, and there is some merit to this. Even if a bus were only 25 percent occupied it would still be more utilized than the average car that has four empty seats in tow and takes up far more road space per occupant. Trains offer even more efficiency, speed, and comfort without swallowing up vast quantities of land and splitting communities with a constant stream of noisy traffic like a motorway does.

However as any fans of Douglas Adams will know, getting the right answer is pointless if you do not ask the right question. Instead of asking how we can more efficiently move everyone from A to B, we should be asking why so many people are trying to get from A to B in the first place and asking if we can shorten the physical distance between the two.

Ireland’s problem is too much economic activity concentrated in Dublin where there is a shortage of housing. Dublin is not the only city in the world to suffer from a jobs/housing imbalance, and a look at the bigger picture makes it clear that the solution has to be a bigger discussion about land use and regional development, not just looking at transport in isolation.

To give credit where due, the government has sought to attack some aspects of the problem. There is a proposal to raise height limits in the construction of new residential buildings in cities. This is essential if Ireland is to become competitive as a place to live and work with a decent quality of life, so it would behoove the government to follow through on this promise. The only alternative to building upwards is to build outwards, and every floor added to a planned building at the urban core is one less patch of green grass paved over on the edge of town.

Every separation of land use is guaranteed to cause more people to drive. Retail “parks” and office “parks” that are only accessible by car should be banned in favor of traditional city streets. Allowing mixed uses such as corner stores in housing areas and commercial and residential development on the same street can eliminate car journeys now that people have the chance to live within walking distance of more destinations. Higher density housing can be quite comfortable if more of citizens’ daily needs are within walking distance. Nor should urban loft apartments be seen as a threat to anyone’s way of life or be seen as a repeat of the failed inner city housing projects of the 1960s. Raising a family in the suburbs is fine, but students and young single professionals would much prefer to live in a compact walkable neighborhood where there is plenty of nightlife and entertainment options close to hand. For younger people who have not yet settled down to start families, what is available outside the home is more important than what families consider important.

Higher density living in town also makes it easier to provide economical public transport options since buses, trains and trams have more people living and working within walking distance of their boarding points. For those who do want to live in suburbs, sensible decisions can also be made on good principles of urban planning so that driving a car does not become the default option. Cul de sacs can be fine as long as they allow pedestrians and cyclists to take shortcuts through roads that would be a dead end to car drivers, which in many cases can make the bike a quicker means of getting to certain destinations than the automobile.

Every ounce of power given to the NIMBY lobby is a threat to future economic growth, evidenced by the farcical situation of a major Apple datacenter development in Athenry being held up by one person who is able to mount a legal challenge in the courts despite overwhelming support for the project among locals. The same person is also objecting to a $1 billion Amazon data center campus in Dublin. That projects like these can be delayed for years by two men and a dog is an indictment of a legal system that gives too much power to curmudgeons. Housing developments often face similar blockages despite the state being in the midst of a housing shortage and homelessness crisis.

Above all, Ireland needs to embrace urban living and come to understand that the benefits of living in a city cannot be fully realized by trying to accommodate cars at the expense of people. Cities are for living in, not driving through. The sooner the government learns this, the better.

Many of those advocating Scotland staying in the UK are more inclined to inadvertently boost support for secession.

As the state of the campaign against Scottish independence changes from complacency to desperation to all-out panic, the number of voices capable of making a compelling case for the status quo is small.

On Wednesday David Cameron appeared in Edinburgh with Ed Miliband, the opposition leader, to plead with the Scots to stay in the union. “I would be heartbroken if this family of nations that we’ve put together and that we’ve done such amazing things together, if this family of nations was torn apart,” he said.  It is unlikely that his appearance in or absence from Scotland would have helped his case.

This is because the Conservatives are all but extinct north of the border. If the Democrats in America lost the south for a generation when they forced the end of segregation, the Tories lost Scotland for a generation when the heavy industry upon which so many Scottish workers depended became the collateral damage of Thatcher’s brutal reforms. It is by no accident that Alistair Darling, a Labour MP, was chosen to be the front man for the No campaign. Tories would be well advised to keep their heads down and let Labour do the talking.

The business community, having been briefed by pro-union politicians in Downing Street, has stepped in with warnings about dire consequences of secession, but these also seem to be falling on cynical ears.  For every warning about higher prices and declining business activity there is an equal and opposite dismissal of such stories as “scare mongering.”  The more apocalyptic the warnings, the louder the laughter gets in the Yes camp.

Should the warnings from business leaders be heeded?  Businesspeople like the future to be as predictable as possible so that they can plan ahead, and change makes this planning difficult. They have always had a tendency to resist change, but when it has arrived those who adapted got along just fine and those who didn’t were eliminated, as is right and proper. Some voters will understand this, but more will simply dismiss the opinions of business interests, particularly those in the financial industry, who are seen as being responsible for the catastrophe of 2008.

The Orange Order has decided to add their voice to the discussion with a parade and rally in Edinburgh.  Reporters felt the need to point out that they all “passed off peacefully”, but the sight of an instrument of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions on the streets of Edinburgh, complete with a banner attacking “Popery”,  is unlikely to endear the No campaign to any floating voters if it is seen to be aligned with such elements.

Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, has also put in an appearance and promptly found demonstrators arriving in plenty of time to oppose what is seen as a far right party that appeals to extremist xenophobes and racists.

As it falls to Labour to be the only pro-union voice in Scotland that still carries some clout, a point that does not seem to have gotten much traction in the debates concerns the relationship with Europe.  Those on the right who most vigorously defend the union argue that national identity should be put aside and that sovereignty should be compromised for the greater good. They use the word “nationalism” as a pejorative. Yet this is the exact same  argument that the exact same people reject where Europe is concerned.  If national identity were secondary to economic and financial matters, and if independence is so overrated that it should be sacrificed for the greater good, then the logical conclusion would be a federal Europe with a single currency and central bank.  The Euro would be the currency of all member states. National parliaments would have greatly reduced powers and the shots would be called in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Frankfurt. The parties that are most outspoken in the defense of a greater union in Britain are equally outspoken in their opposition to a greater union in Europe. It is difficult to interpret this as anything other than advocating English domination.

As the vote has drawn nearer, the debate has become more focused, and voters who may have paid little heed to the matter before are now becoming better informed about the issues involved. Changing views among women are said to be one of the driving factors behind the sudden swing to the Yes side.  It would seem like there is a correlation between how much people know about the consequences of secession and support for it.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) under Alex Salmond has for years stayed on message. To counter the age-old argument that England subsidizes Scotland, the SNP has been adamant that the reverse is true. There is a growing perception that much of “Britain’s” wealth is underwritten by North Sea oil reserves in Scottish waters, and that precious little of that wealth has found its way back up north from London. It would seem that this message is sinking in with more voters.

North Sea oil production peaked in 1999 and approximately 60 percent of reserves has been extracted, although natural gas production is yet to peak.  How much is left and how long it will last is impossible to say because of a variety of factors such as the uncertainty of how much is yet to be found, future developments in extraction technology, and so on.  However estimates range from $195 million to $2.4 trillion. Regardless, the clock is ticking and if the nationalists are to use this as their key to independence, they may never get another chance, and the current timing could not be better with an unpopular Conservative-led government in office.

It should be remembered that there was a third option on the table, “Devo-Max”, which would have been fiscal independence whereby all tax revenue raised in Scotland would remain there rather than the country being funded by a block grant distributed by Westminster.  The nationalists wanted this to be on the ballot but the British government refused to allow it, knowing that it would probably pass.  The voters were instead given the straight choice between the status quo and absolute independence, the latter thought to be out of the question at the time and did not stand a chance of passing.  Mr Cameron must be regretting that decision now, as well he might.  If the Yes campaign clinches a victory at the finishing post, Cameron’s claim to fame in the history books will be as the British Prime Minister who lost Scotland. In that event, he may finally earn some popularity north of the world’s newest international border.

A former Taoiseach stirs up a lively debate about the way in which Ireland broke the link with Britain.

Caricature of German aggression, circa 1913

John Bruton, who served as Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997 with an impressive lack of popularity, has never shied away from expressing controversial views. In a submission to the Irish government, he has argued that the passing of the Government of Ireland Act in the British parliament in September 1914, popularly known as the Irish Home Rule Bill, was such a big deal that it should be included in the decade of commemorations currently marking the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War (great as in large, not as in good). He has said that the 1916 Rising and subsequent War of Independence were unnecessary, and a more peaceful separation from Britain could have been achieved through the mechanisms of the Home Rule Bill. He contends that while partition might not have been avoided, 26 or 28 of the 32 counties could have achieved dominion status if individual counties were given an opt-out. Ireland’s pathway to independence would therefore have looked more like Canada’s and Australia’s departure from the British Empire.

Éamon Ó Cuív of Fianna Fail and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein have both dismissed the idea. They argue that home rule as promised in 1914 would have given Ireland a devolved government with such limited powers that it would have been no different from the current Welsh assembly and have less power than the current Scottish devolved Parliament. They also say that the remarks are disrespectful to those who lost their lives in the rebellion and the subsequent war of independence.

The act came at a time when the Conservatives and Liberals were equally matched in the House of Commons, and John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power. Redmond promised to prop up the Liberals in government in exchange for a home rule bill, which H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, introduced in 1912. This would restore an Irish Parliament in Dublin (the last one was abolished in 1800) and give it control over most national affairs, a reduced number of Irish MPs would continue to sit in Westminster, and Dublin Castle would be abolished. The bill was passed twice in the House of Commons but rejected each time in the House of Lords. On the third reading in the Commons, the Lords were overridden using a Parliament Act that Asquith had pushed through three years prior, and it was given the Royal Assent.

However two obstacles came in the way of its implementation. One was the violent opposition of northern protestant Unionists who formed the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force to forcibly resist the authority of any restored Dublin parliament, the other was the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 which led Asquith to amend the bill to delay its implementation until after the war. John Redmond agreed to this in exchange for encouraging Irishmen to enlist to fight for Britain in Europe. The subsequent 1916 Rising and War of Independence led to a completely different outcome.

Bruton argues that while there were difficulties in implementing the act, they could have been overcome, and that the events of 1916 damaged Ireland ever since by sending it down the path of violence. Is this a fair criticism?

Alternative history is a fascinating topic, but one has to look at the world of the early twentieth century in the context of the times. There was no United Nations, no World Trade Organization, no World Bank, no International Monetary Fund, and no European Union. Universal suffrage was still a long way off, women in the relatively advanced UK could not vote, and millions of people on the continent still lived under the absolute rule of an inbred extended family of unelected kings and emperors, some of whom had questionable qualifications for their roles, personality quirks that compromised their ability to govern, and no means of ousting them from power when they messed up. Colonies in exotic locations were seen as status symbols that no strong, self-respecting, modern European nation should be without.

Peace was not maintained by the treaties and bureaucracy of international trade that we take for granted today, and nation states did not view each other as business partners. They viewed each other as rivals, potential threats, and peace was maintained by a rickety balance of military power and mutual threats of annihilation. When an assassination in the Balkans by a group of freelance revolutionaries gave a belligerent Austria-Hungary their long-awaited excuse to declare war on Serbia, a network of alliances kicked into play in which Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia, France declared war on Germany, and Britain declared war on the Germans after they swept through neutral Belgium to attack France.

There were numerous opportunities to stop the whole Jenga tower from collapsing. The Austrians did not have to blame the Serbian government for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas could have let the Balkan business slide, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm could have left Russia alone, and so on. Indeed the Kaiser was believed to have been in the best position of all to prevent a continent-wide conflagration, hence Germany subsequently getting the blame for starting it. However this was not how politicians operated in those days. Honor was deemed more important than international peace and stability, brinkmanship was commonplace, and the tendency was to use force more readily to solve problems than in today’s world where war is (or in theory should) be used as a last resort after exhausting the numerous other diplomatic channels that are now available.

Therefore if the 1916 Rising was “unnecessary”, it was no more “unnecessary” than the Great War or any other conflict of the time.

Furthermore, many Irish people did not trust that the British would deliver on their promise to implement Home Rule, an understandable mistrust given Lloyd George’s machinations to sell partition to Redmond as temporary, and to northern Unionists as permanent. In addition, revolution was an idea that was gaining currency, particularly as the death toll on the continent started to go to unprecedented heights. The technology of war had changed, but the tactics had not, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life. The carnage on the Eastern Front combined with widespread poverty in Russia to plunge the country into unrest. This would eventually culminate in a socialist revolution that toppled their autocratic Tsar. The lesson of the storm brewing in Russia was not lost on more revolutionary-minded nationalists in Ireland who were becoming increasingly skeptical about Redmond’s exhortations to fight for Britain in what was coming to be seen as someone else’s futile imperial power struggle for which the working man was paying the ultimate price.

Bruton’s critics argue that southern Ireland’s forcible extraction from British domination saved many Irish lives from conscription in the Great War and the subsequent fight against the Nazis. This may have some merit. Bruton’s claim that Ireland could have gone the same way as Canada and Australia overlooks Ireland’s key difference from those dominions: its location at England’s back door. A neutral Ireland would not have been in Britain’s interest, particularly given the ruthlessness of the Nazis and their willingness to follow their imperial predecessors in sweeping through neutral Belgium in order to encircle their main target. Indeed the Nazis did draw up a detailed plan to invade Ireland, Operation Green, and use the country as an aircraft carrier to attack England on a second front, although it never came to pass and today is thought of as a feint.

Does Bruton’s contribution show disrespect for those who died in the conflict? He argues that he does respect the fallen, but it does not necessarily show disrespect to the war dead if we say that the war they fought in was unnecessary. He has a point, since there are numerous conflicts throughout history that are widely believed to be unnecessary, conflicts fought in Iraq, Vietnam, and of course the Great War itself that is almost universally thought of as a pointless waste of lives. Few would consider it disrespectful to describe those conflicts as unnecessary.

However there are those who would argue that the UK, which included all of Ireland, was right to partake in the First World War. Sir Max Hastings, a British broadcaster and historian, argues that had Germany succeeded in its plan to encircle the French, they could have taken most of the continent. Indeed with revolution undermining support for the war in Russia, it is possible that the Eastern Front and the Western Front could both have been German victories, and Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg would have become vassal states of Germany, now under the rule of a victorious, popular, and merciless Kaiser. However it is difficult to see what would have happened beyond that. Would the Kaiser have gotten greedy and followed Napoleon on his ill-fated attempt to take Russia only to perish on the freezing steppes? Would the Nazis never have risen from a German humiliation that never would have come about as a result of the non-existent Treaty of Versailles, and would Adolf Hitler have died of old age in loneliness and obscurity in Vienna? We shall never know.

Either way, the discussion of the “what if” scenarios involved in Ireland achieving independence via the 1914 Home Rule Act are worth discussing. However it should be treated as the same kind of academic thought experiment as asking what would have happened if one of the imperial European powers had the courage to step back from the brink in 1914. The fact that an alternative to the 1916 Rising was theoretically available does not alter the fact of what did happen, and what is done is done.

Nor should Irish people feel ashamed of how their country came to take on its present form. The shenanigans that led to Scotland’s union with England are long forgotten (see article). America’s history is littered with questionable issues such as the treatment of native Americans, and the violent land-grab from Mexico that forcibly annexed vast western territories including California. While there is a growing awareness of these imperfections, it does not dampen America’s famously intense patriotism. Australians are as patriotic as ever while still coming to terms with the treatment of their aboriginal peoples. Germany’s soccer fans were not shy about celebrating their newly reunited country’s achievement at the World Cup in 1990, nor today in 2014, as Bismarck’s magnificent creation has overcome its turbulent past, peacefully come of age, and reached its potential.

What matters is that we get as full an understanding of history as possible so that we learn the lessons from it and do not repeat our mistakes. If war is ever to have a positive outcome, surely that is it.

Unionist support for Israel, no matter how illegal or immoral its actions, is consistent with a historic pattern.

At a time when a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Gaza, the DUP has decided to form a “Friends of Israel” group to underscore their support for the perpetrators. This will come as no surprise to seasoned observers of Northern Ireland politics. In the land where lampposts double up as flagpoles for territorial marking purposes, loyalist areas are adorned with Israeli flags, and nationalist areas sport the Palestinian flag.

Unionism sees much in common with Zionism. The current slaughter in Gaza, the use of indiscriminate air strikes and artillery in densely populated civilian areas and the inevitable high civilian casualty rate, is the acting out of a fantasy that unionism once held. In the early 1990s one unionist politician called for “Gulf war tactics” to be used in fighting the IRA, arguing that the then-new technology of laser-guided missiles could be used to kill IRA operatives. The thought of firing cruise missiles at residential housing estates in Belfast is as ludicrous as it would be irresponsible, and the inevitable civilian death toll would set back the cause of peace by decades. The British government knew better than to resort to such outlandish and unacceptable methods, yet this is exactly what is happening in Gaza and it does not seem to bother the DUP leadership nor anyone else among Israel’s shrinking band of supporters.

The far-fetched idea that the conflict in the north could be settled by military means was one that unionism clung to for decades because, if if could be achieved, it would mean that a negotiated settlement would be unnecessary, the status quo would remain untouched, and the pesky idea of Irish nationalism would magically go away. That Israel is pursuing a policy that is making a negotiated settlement ever more difficult, civilian casualties be damned, has a certain ideological appeal for such people.

The illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is not the only unsavory cause with which unionism has aligned in its history. Unionists in 1900 identified with the British conquest of South Africa in their conflict with the Boers, ancestors of today’s Afrikaners, however in the 1980s sympathies had shifted as loyalists forged links with far right pro-apartheid Afrikaner groups and imported South African arms for Ulster Resistance, the paramilitary group founded by senior DUP members including Peter Robinson. While the international chorus got ever louder for South Africa to end apartheid and used economic sanctions to make the point, Margaret Thatcher’s government was more reticent than most to join in with the sanctions, an implicit support for the white supremacist regime that unionism was happy to stand by. Even as recently as 2013 when Nelson Mandela died, Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, a far right unionist party, denounced the media coverage of Mandela’s death as not being critical enough. He brought up the oft-repeated unionist view that Mandela was a “terrorist” who “left a trail of victims.”

Of course this does not absolve Irish nationalism. Like the rest of world opinion, Irish opposition to apartheid was not really galvanized until the Sharpville Massacre of 1960. Prior to that, attitudes were ambivalent, and further back many nationalist leaders aligned themselves with the Boers of South Africa during the late nineteenth century conflict as a means of hitting at the British empire by proxy, often fighting against British divisions that had far more Irish in their ranks. Nonetheless, attitudes evolve, and the propensity for unionism to align itself with colonizing regimes with questionable human rights records is noteworthy. It is as if wherever in the world there is an imposed state based on the supremacy of one race or religion over another, unionism will find in it a kindred spirit.

A small group in Ireland is unlikely to move the needle on the Arab-Israeli conflict; Israel’s most significant power broker remains the United States, but even here attitudes are changing. Recent polls show consistently strong support for Israel among the older generation who remember the country as a bulwark against Soviet-backed interests in the region. However younger people with no Cold War memories and with better access to international news sources are showing more sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. A solid majority in America still supports Israel, but that support plunges to a quarter among people aged 18 to 29.

A Globescan/PIPA poll in 2013/2014 shows that Israel’s reputation worldwide is slipping. When asked about a range of countries and whether their influence in the world is positive or negative, Israel found itself below Russia and in the same league as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.

If unionism is to find a broader appeal, it could do well to find a way to define itself that does not invoke the image of a superior people inhabiting an island of civilization that is besieged by inferior savages. Such a worldview does not age well, and unionism should be careful about the company it keeps.

The United Nations has assessed Ireland’s progress on human rights. It is not pleased.

It has been an ignoble month for Ireland’s human rights record in the eyes of the international community. After days of questioning a delegation of government officials, The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) reported a long list of concerns about the state’s progress in reaching compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and has found progress to be lacking to say the least.

There was concern that nothing has been done to amend Article 41.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the constitution, which spells out the state’s vision for how women fit into society. The article currently reads: “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
… The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

This quaint article could be interpreted as a requirement that the state provides financial security to women who work in the home, but it has never been enforced that way and a high court ruling that it should was once overturned by the Supreme Court. The UNHRC has asked that the state should take steps to ensure that the wording is gender neutral and encourages female participation in the workforce.

On violence against women, it was found that there is no system in place to record incidents of domestic and sexual violence against women, and that there are too many obstacles in the way of victims accessing support services.

The state was criticized for “highly restrictive circumstances” in which a woman can access abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or serious risk to the health of the mother, and a lack of clarity of laws dealing with the matter. This issue came to prominence in 2013 in the case of Savita Halappanavar who reportedly died as a result of doctors not being clear on how they were allowed to proceed during complications with her pregnancy.

On the historic abuse of women in institutions such as Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes, the report expressed regret at the lack of identification of perpetrators, lack of prosecutions, and a failure to provide any remedies to victims.

The report ruled that Ireland has not done enough to protect the rights of women who were forcibly subjected to symphysiotomy. This is a surgical procedure that was largely phased out in the nineteenth century whereby the pelvis was broken by dividing cartilage to overcome problems associated with obstructed childbirth. The practice, which often resulted in impaired locomotion, bladder injuries, and a higher infant mortality rate, was made obsolete in the rest of the world by safer cesarean sections. However it was reintroduced in Ireland because of the influence of catholic ethics. Cesarean sections on women with “disproportion”, a pelvis too small to naturally deliver through the birth canal, were seen as necessitating sterilization or the use of contraception after three cesarean deliveries. This flew in the face of Catholic doctors, resulting the resurrection of symphysiotomy and its imposition on 1,500 Irish women from 1947 to 1987 regardless of their own needs or religious convictions and without their consent or knowledge.

The report found that Ireland has not done enough to track down and punish the perpetrators of this mass mutilation, nor has it provided effective remedies to survivors.

Concern was expressed about the conditions in Irish prisons which are found to be outdated and overcrowded. There is a lack of segregation between classes of prisoners, high levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and no sanitation in many cells, resulting in prisoners having to defecate in buckets in conditions that are deemed degrading.

It ruled that the state has not done enough to protect the rights of parents wishing to send their children to secular schools free of religious indoctrination (see article), nor has enough progress been made on eliminating requirements for public officials to swear religious oaths.

Other shortcomings relate to the failure to recognize Travellers as an ethnic minority group, failure to amend the 2002 Housing Act to recognize the specific housing needs of Travellers rather than criminalizing them, and there was certainly concern at the forced removal of Roma children from their parents because of suspicions raised by their physical appearance.

It is clear that many of the shortcomings relate to a lack of urgency in supporting women’s rights, and most of the suppression of women can be traced back to religious reasoning and a historically dominant position and influence enjoyed by the catholic church. That domination is a thing of the past, but its influence lives on in a legacy of antiquated legislation and constitutional provisions that have fallen behind what modern society demands. Any government that wants to earn the respect of its citizens, women in particular, could do well to address the problems as a matter of priority. It would be unfortunate if the same litany of shortcomings in the 2014 report were to appear again when the next report is due in 2019.

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