Archive for the Politics Category

The Virtue of Signalling

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on September 3, 2020 by telescoper
I was in a supermarket in Maynooth yesterday morning when a bloke was refused entry for not wearing a mask. That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen, though I’ve heard various people mentioning similar stories elsewhere. There is a big sign near the entrance to the store saying that face masks are mandatory, which they have been for some time in Ireland, so he could not make the excuse that he didn’t know. I rather think he was trying to make a point.
The person concerned didn’t get violent, but was extremely loud and abusive to the staff, who shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of behaviour. He stood there for a while shouting expletive in between which his message was that he didn’t care whether he got Covid-19 as it was “just the flu”. I did wonder whether someone might call that Gardaí but after a few minutes, afer which he either felt he had done what he wanted to do or that he was wasting his time, he left.
I have to admit I completely fail to see why certain people find wearing a face mask such an ordeal. It’s really nothing. I understand that some people, with e.g. asthma, might have good reasons for finding it difficult but I’m talking here about people without such reasons who seem to think they’re being asked to bear some intolerable burden, rather than just wearing a piece of light material over their nose and mouth. I’ve got quite used to it and think nothing of it. As winter comes on I even think wearing a mask might help keep my face warm and, more importantly, protect my beard from inclement weather.
The only thing that bothers me slightly is that I have very boring face masks when others seem to have invested in colourful stylish affairs. It makes me feel a bit drab. Perhaps I should invest in some more glamorous masks.
But back to our friend in the supermarket. He of course may not care whether or not he gets Covid-19, but that’s not the main point of wearing a mask. Face masks are far more effective at protecting other people from your germs than protect you from other people’s germs. I suspect, however, that trying to explain this to the person concerned would simply make matters worse. To be happy wearing a face mask you have to be the sort of person who cares about what happens to other people and there are some – regrettably many these days – who just don’t. I’m sure that extreme selfishness translates into their political attitudes too.
When we return to on-campus teaching at the end of this month, students will be asked to wear face coverings in lectures. I’m not sure how that will work out. In particular I don’t know who is supposed to police it. Supermarkets have people on the door to turn away the unmasked. Are we to have that at the entrance to lecture theatres?
Lecturing with a face mask on will be difficult, but in a big theatre the lecturer is sufficiently far from the front of the audience that won’t be necessary.
I’m not sure how effective face masks will be at slowing the spread of Covid-19 – we’ll have to wait and see – but my attitude is that they are just a part of a bundle of measures, including frequent washing of hands, wiping surfaces regularly, maintaining social distancing, etc that all contribute. The great value of a face mask in all this is that it is visible. Wearing a mask is a signal to others that they should remember the danger of the situation and act accordingly. It’s a way of showing leadership.
It has become fashionable (at least among those who possess no virtues) to use the phrase virtue signalling as pejorative term for doing or saying something good in a way that is conspicuous. To the person ejected from the supermarket, the wearing of a face mask is probably an example of virtue signalling. I think it is too, literally, and I’m all in favour of it.

The Storm in Ireland

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , , on August 25, 2020 by telescoper

I’m sitting in my office eating a sandwich and listening to the rain. Last night Storm Francis arrived – the picture above was what I saw on the weather app on my phone just before I went to bed, with the storm approaching from the I was very tired so went straight to sleep and fortunately wasn’t woken up by the storm. It probably wasn’t as windy as Storm Ellen but there’s been a heck of a lot of rain, and it’s still coming down.

Storm Francis isn’t the biggest storm going on in Ireland at the moment, though. Last week a quite different tempest brewed up, a political one, the consequences of which have already been quite severe for certain members of the Government. There’s now even a Wikipedia page about the Oireachtas Golf Society Scandal, known colloquially as Golfgate, which means I don’t have to explain too much about it. The story in a nutshell that 81 people, including a number of prominent politicians, attended a golf club dinner that violated Covid-19 restrictions. It has already caused two politicians to resign from their main offices, and a host of apologies have been made, but I don’t think it’s over yet. People are justifiably furious about politicians and other public figures behaving as if they are above the law while others are enduring lockdown conditions. There are definite shades of Dominic Cummings and his trip to Barnard Castle.

One outstanding issue is the conduct of EU Trade Commissioner, Phil Hogan, who not only attended the dinner but also travelled to Kildare (which is under special restrictions) on the way there and, it subsequently emerged, was stopped by Gardaí for talking on his mobile phone will driving. He has been asked to account for his actions by his boss, Ursula von der Leyen, to whom he has handed over a `20-page dossier’ explaining his movements. One wonders what else is in that document that we don’t yet know about.

Update: 26th August. Phil Hogan resigned.

In my opinion, Hogan should be sacked if he won’t resign but there is an issue about how to prevent this sort of thing happening in future. The answer to me is obvious: an interest in golf is clearly an indication of poor judgement so anyone who plays golf, or is interested in golf in any way, should be barred from holding any form of public office.

I rest my case.

The U-turn and After …

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on August 18, 2020 by telescoper

One of the many things that Winston Churchill never said (referring to Americans) is that they “…will always do the right thing – after exhausting all the alternatives”. Yesterday the UK Government performed a U-turn on its approach to A-level results but only after extensive protests and after causing immense stress to a great many students. All of this could have been avoided had the Secretary of State for Education bothered to look at the results of the downgrading algorithm. This morning he said that he “wasn’t aware” of what the outcomes would be and tried to put the blame on OfQual. Well, it’s actually his job to be aware of these things and that statement shows he’s not doing his job.

While many students will be mighty relieved that their official A-level grades will go up, that won’t be the end of this fiasco. Many students will find that their places have been already been filled through last week’s clearing process. The Government has lifted the number cap on places in imposed earlier this year, but that won’t help many departments, especially those in the sciences, who have severe constraints on, e.g., laboratory capacity (more so with social distancing in place).

I feel very sorry for friends and former colleagues in UK universities having to deal with this shambles. The Government will be quite happy that it has managed to throw this particularly hot potato into the hands of admissions tutors across the land. Ministers will be hoping that whatever blame now accrues will be attributed to universities being “inflexible” when it is entirely down to incompetence elsewhere. As always it’s the front-line staff who will have to deal with it, as if their job was not stressful enough having to deal with Covid-19.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, the Government’s plan for “standardisation” of this year’s Leaving Certificate results looks alarmingly similar to the failed approach tried – and subsequently abandoned – in the United Kingdom. Minister for Education Norma Foley has been making statements about the accuracy and reliability of her Department’s plans that sound eerily similar to those issued by officials across the Irish Sea. I hope that I’m wrong about this – and that there’s some frantic activity going on behind the scenes to change the approach ahead of the release of this year’s Leaving Certificate grades (due on September 7th) – but I have a feeling that we’re going to see yet another slow-motion car crash. It wouldn’t be the first time that, having observed something truly shambolic happening in the UK Education system, an Irish Government then proceeds to do exactly the same thing…

The Great A-level Scandal

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , on August 14, 2020 by telescoper

The full scale of the scandal of this year’s A-level results is now becoming clear and it is bad enough to bring down a Government. Unfortunately there are so many scandals surrounding the UK Government (e.g. corrupt procurement deals, collapsing economy, terrible Covid-19 mortality figures, fiddled Covid-19 testing statistics, not to mention Boris Johnson himself) that nobody seems to care about that one more probably won’t make much difference.

Yesterday Qfqual released its report on this year’s A-level results which reveals that in arriving at the final grades, the algorithm deployed was based on past performance of pupils at the candidate’s school. in many cases this has resulted in students being downgraded by several grades in a manner that is both arbitrary and cruel.

Update: I’ve just heard from a physics, in an institute in which I once worked, that a student with original grade A* in Physics A-level has been assigned a final grade E. Unbelievable.

That starting point of the Ofqual approach is indefensible. A student’s examination grade should be determined by the student’s own performance, not by the performance of previous generations of students who happened to go to the same school at some time in the past.

Not surprisingly, the Ofqual approach has benefited students who went to private schools and severely disadvantaged students at less privileged establishments. The rightwing media are justifying this on the grounds that teachers at some state schools have inflated their students’ estimated grades. The attitude is that working class kids can’t possibly deserve an A* so their teachers must have cheated! I can’t believe this bias is unintentional. The Tory message to the less privileged is that they need to know their place. You needn’t ask who is behind this deliberate demographic* profiling. It stinks of the unofficial Prime Minister Dominic Cummings

But even within its own flawed terms the Ofqual algorithm is garbage. Table E8 in the report shows that when applied to last year’s input data (mock exams and centre-based assessments), even in the best case subject (History) the prediction was only accurate for 67% of students; the figure falls to less than 50% for, e.g., Further Mathematics. When the Ofqual panel saw that they should have abandoned their algorithm immediately. The fact that they pursued it knowing how deeply problematic means that they are more interested in serving their political masters than the students whose prospects they have deliberately blighted.

In my view a system should be introduced that gives the student the benefit of the doubt. Grades should be awarded based on what the student has achieved. If that ends up being too generous to a few students then that’s surely better than the opposite? Whenever I’ve been involved in University examinations processes when emergency changes were required we have always implemented a `no detriment to the students’ policy. It’s the obvious fair thing to do.

Oh, and you might ask why universities don’t show some humanity and accept students whose grades have been reduced. The answer to that is simple. If they do, they will go down in the league tables. And for many senior managers that’s all that matters.

*which means, of course, (indirect) racial profiling too.

The Law of the Sea

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , on August 10, 2020 by telescoper

There are few things more despicable than a Government that manufactures outrage in order to distract from its own failings. The latest example  is the UK Government’s ridiculous response to a few desperate migrants crossing the English Channel in boats. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has appointed a “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” (whatever that is supposed to mean) and is apparently considering sending Royal Navy to protect the United Kingdom from the terrifying women and small children arriving in dinghies. Pathetic.

Mind you, I think sending the Royal Navy to the Channel is in some ways a good idea. Once there they could offer greater assistance to small boats in peril on the sea and bring their occupants safely to port in England. That, after all, would be their duty under international law. I know we can’t expect the Home Secretary to either know or care about the law, but I suspect Royal Navy officers do. The Law of the Sea is far older than any Government.

Following age-old maritime traditions, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) obliges that a ship’s master “render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost” and to rescue those in distress so long “as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers” of his own vessel. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) includes a similar obligation requiring ship masters, on hearing about a vessel in distress, to provide assistance and inform the search and rescue service that they are doing so. The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue requires parties to provide assistance to anyone in distress “regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found.” These laws require the rescue of survivors from unseaworthy vessels crossing the English Channel as much as they do to the Mediterranean (where they are sadly routinely flouted).

Not only is there both a moral and a legal duty to rescue those in danger of losing their life at sea, it is the responsibility of the rescuer to take them to a place of safety. Amendments to the Convention for Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue codify this obligation of Member States to ensure that the rescued survivors disembark the vessel in a safe place. A safe place is one “where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met.” People rescued in national territorial waters (usually within 12 miles of the coast) become the responsibility of the nation concerned.

There is a far greater humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, of course, and we should not forget the failure of other countries (and the European Union) to deal with it properly, but that is not an excuse for Britain to behave so callously.

I saw a comment on Twitter the other day – from a person I subsequently blocked – arguing that migrant boats should be rammed and the occupants allowed to drown. Proudly in his Twitter profile was the slogan. `ALL LIVES MATTER’.

R. I. P. John Hume (1937-2020)

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on August 3, 2020 by telescoper

Very sad news arrived this morning of the death at the age of 83 of civil rights campaigner and politician John Hume. He had been suffering from dementia for some time, and passed away earlier this morning in a nursing home in his native Derry. In that sense his death was not unexpected but I know from my own recent experience that won’t make it any easier for his loved ones. Condolences to John’s wife Pat and their family at what must be a difficult time for them.

John Hume, a Catholic, espoused the Irish nationalist cause but through non-violence, which often drew the ire of extremists on either side. Being moderate can be a dangerous position when you’re surrounded by armed factions. He became leader of the SDLP and was a key agent in the peace process that led to the construction of the Good Friday Agreement, a fact that was recognised in 1998 by a share of the Nobel Peace Prize (with David Trimble).

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” it says in the Gospel according to St Matthew. I wish more people – especially politicians – who profess to be Christian took that as seriously as John Hume.

There is a special connection between John Hume and Maynooth. He came here to St Patrick’s College initially to study for the priesthood. He didn’t pursue that aim but instead completed an MA degree in 1964 with a thesis on ‘Social and Economic Aspects of the Growth of Derry 1825 -1850’. Maynooth University recognises that connection with John & Pat Hume postgraduate scholarships and through the Hume building on campus.

John Hume was a man of great courage and integrity who dedicated his life to the cause of peace and mutual respect. He will be greatly missed.

I’ll end with a quote of his:

Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership.

And another:

All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace – respect for diversity.

Rest in peace John Hume (1937-2020). Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam dílis.

More Evidence of Marxist Indoctrination in Universities!

Posted in Politics on July 15, 2020 by telescoper

Excess Deaths due to Coronavirus: Compare and Contrast

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on July 3, 2020 by telescoper

I saw an interesting news item this morning about excess deaths registered in Ireland between 11th March and 16th June, the period that brackets the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the official numbers, 1709 deaths occurred during that time of people who had tested positive for the Coronavirus. During the same period, however,  about about 1100-1200 deaths were registered in excess of the average mortality figures.
One interpretation of this discrepancy is that many of those counted as Covid-19 cases actually died of other causes. Consistent with that interpretation is the fact that over 60% of those deaths were people in care homes, many of whom may have had chronic illness.

Taking 1150 as an estimate of the excess deaths caused by Covid-19 the mortality per million in Ireland drops from 352 to about 237. It must be noted that this figure is still much higher than similar-sized countries such as Denmark and Norway.

The contrast with the United Kingdom is stark. A recent analysis of excess deaths there suggests about 69,000 people have lost their lives directly or indirectly due to Covid-19, which is about 57% higher than the official figure of around 44,000. Taking 69,000 instead of 44,000, the United Kingdom’s mortality rate increases from 647 per million to over a thousand.

I haven’t really been following the reporting in the United Kingdom very closely, because I don’t live there anymore, but the data on new cases found by testing is hopelessly confusing. This, together, with the apparent under-reporting of deaths, may be the reason behind the lax adherence to public health measures over the other side of the Irish Sea.

There is also the fact that daily Covid-19 briefings here in Ireland are led by medical experts, with the politicians taking a back seat (and often not involved at all). These are much more likely to be trusted than politicians, especially those involved in the current Tory government.

Ireland’s New Government

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2020 by telescoper

I remembered this morning that I haven’t posted anything about the news that Ireland has a new Government, so decided to do a quick lunchtime blog on that topic. The election that happened earlier this year left no party with enough seats to form an administration and negotiations to form a coalition were drastically slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, however, members of the three parties involved in drafting the Programme for Government – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party – all ratified the proposal. A vote in the Dáil Éireann to formally approve the new Taoiseach was held on Saturday and a new Government formed. Its Ministers have now all been appointed.

Ireland’s new Taoiseach (the equivalent of Prime Minister) is Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil. He replaces Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael who becomes Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister). Under the terms of the coalition agreement they will swap places after two and a half years of the five year term, i.e. at the end of 2022 (assuming the Goverment survives that long).

This isn’t the kind of government that I wanted because it seems to only to offer more of the same short-sighted and socially divisive neoliberal economic policies that have led to disintegrating public services and increasing levels of poverty and homelessness over the last decade. Increasing GDP growth while at the same time worsening social outcomes is not successful government in my view. Tempering my disappointment, though, I do think the coalition represents a step forward in some ways. In my view there is very little difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in terms of policy, which means that there has been little substantive opposition from one when the other has been in power, which has been the way Irish politics has been for decades. Now that similarity in political complexion has been formally recognized and Ireland now has a proper opposition party in the form of a resurgent Sinn Féin led by Mary Lou McDonald. I know better than to try to predict political developments but I can see Sinn Féin rising in popularity in opposition, probably at the expense of Fianna Fáil as the incumbent parties are unlikely to find the immediate future plain sailing. I think Leo Varadkar will be privately happy that Micheál Martin is Taoiseach for what is likely to prove the toughest phase.

Ireland’s electoral system involves a single transferable vote and I know many people who used their ballot to “transfer left”. The Green Party clearly prospered from such transfers during the 2020 election, but now finds itself propping up a Centre-Right coalition. No doubt many who transferred left are dismayed to find that they inadvertently transferred right. What that does for the popularity of the Greens in future remains to be seen. I would comment however that the Greens have been pretty successful in getting their proposals into the Programme for Government and I welcome many of them.

Another thing well worth mentioning is the creation of a new Minister at Cabinet level with responsibility for Higher Education. That was a Fianna Fáil idea but I didn’t see it in the Programme for Government. There is a little bit of confusion* about what the title of this new position is. When it was first announced it was reported as “Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Research” though that seems to have morphed into “Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Science”, which has left colleagues in the arts, humanities and social sciences feeling a bit disgruntled. It’s a pity that there isn’t an English word like the German Wissenschaft to use in such general contexts.

*UPDATE: I am reliably informed (by Twitter) that the correct title is “The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science”.

Whatever its precise name, the announcement of the creation of this new Ministry has received a cautious welcome from across the third-level sector. I also see this as potentially promising but I think I’ll reserve judgement until we see what it proposes to do. Interesting, though it was a Fianna Fáil policy to create this new cabinet position, the person appointed to it, Simon Harris TD, is actually from Fine Gael and was the Health Minister in the previous administration. I think the general opinion is that he did fairly well in that position, though reading his biography I see that he dropped out of university without getting a degree, which hardly inspires confidence in his commitment to higher education.

This isn’t the sort of Government I voted for, but I hope it can steer Ireland safely through the ongoing crisis reasonably safely. I’ll take it over the dismal collection of crooks and charlatans who are in power across the Irish Sea any day.

Meanwhile, in Ireland…

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 17, 2020 by telescoper

It seems an eternity since we had the 2020 general election in Ireland on February 8th because of the intervention of the Covid-19 outbreak, but it’s still been over four months. Now however it seems we might have a new government fairly soon, as a deal has been agreed to form a coalition between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party; between them these parties have 84 seats (not counting the Ceann Comhairle), enough to create a majority in the Dáil Éireann. It’s not quite done and dusted, though, as the Green Party has to ballot its membership and a two-thirds majority is needed to endorse the agreement. We should know next week.

In case you think this delay means that Ireland has been in political crisis since February, it hasn’t really. The constitution makes it clear that if a new government can’t be formed the old one continues until one can (or until another election can be held). Leo Varadkar has continued as Taioseach in the mean time. His popularity has increased in this period, at least partly because as a trained medical person, he is perceived to have handled the Covid-19 crisis rather well. It seems that incumbents have generally received the backing of the public when they have coped reasonably with the pandemic. Whether that continues in Ireland remains to be seen. When the truth comes out about how many patients were transferred from hospitals into nursing homes where they were left to die perhaps opinions will change.

It has taken over four months for the the parties to agree a `draft programme for government’ which you can find here. That document is 139 pages long but largely devoid of concrete commitments and indeed devoid of anything other than vague discussions, platitudes, and `reviews’. At a quick reading I’d say the Greens have been far more effective at getting their agenda into it than Fianna Fáil, perhaps because the latter don’t really have an agenda other than wanting to be in power. The Green initiatives are in my opinion the strongest parts of the programme, but the rest seems to me to be just “more of the same”.

I’d say that the one redeeming factor is the document is the emphasis on stimulus rather than austerity as a way out of the current crisis but of course that may turn out not to be what actually happens.

From the point of view of Ireland’s universities and research community there is little to rejoice. On page 114 you can find this:

Higher and Further Education have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 crisis and we will support the sector through these challenges to ensure that educational opportunities remain and are made more accessible to everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in our society. In addition, we will continue to support our research community to tackle the social and scientific problems posed by COVID-19 now and into the future.

We are committed to addressing the funding challenges in third-level education. We want a Higher and Further Education sector that sees education as a holistic and life-long pursuit. We will continue to build strong connections with other education sectors and wider society, while recognising our global and environmental responsibilities. It is vital we invest in our Higher and Further Education sectors so we can continue to tackle inequality based on race, gender, and socio-economic background. We recognise the potential for our Higher and Further Education institutions to be exemplars regionally, nationally and internationally.

At a time of great economic uncertainty, when so many people fear for their future employment, we will ensure that Higher Education plays a vital role in our recovery. We will equip students with the skills necessary to secure employment, while preparing for the opportunities and challenges posed by a changing economy, the move to a low-carbon future and disruptive technologies, as well as offering retraining and reskilling opportunities to help people into employment.

Warm words at the start and then a worryingly blinkered emphasis on universities simply as providers of skills training. We do that of course, but we do so much more that Irish governments seem not to recognize.

Later on we get a commitment to

Develop a long-term sustainable funding model for Higher Level education in collaboration with the sector and informed by recent and ongoing research and analysis.

Sigh. There’s been an OECD Report (2004), the Hunt Report (2011), the Cassells Report (2016), etc. How many times will this issue be kicked into the long grass?

The Fianna Fáil `pledge’ to introduce a Minister for Higher Education and Research has, needless to say, fallen by the wayside in the negotiations.

The plan for the new Government is that the plan is as the leader of the largest party in the coalition, Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin will take over as Taoiseach for two years, after which Leo Varadkar will return. This is being referred to as a `Rotating Taoiseach’, which is a pretty apt given that the programme has more spin than substance.