Archive for the Politics Category

Notes on Eurovision

Posted in Biographical, Music, Politics with tags , , , , on May 15, 2022 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise Ukraine won last night’s Eurovision song contest after collecting a huge dollop of the televotes. After the jury votes, the United Kingdom’s entry was in the lead which surprised me because I thought it wasn’t much of a song at all. I’ve never been very good at picking the tunes that do well though. I didn’t like Ukraine’s entry – Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra – much either, but obviously there are special circumstances this year and I’m not at all sorry that they won.

In fact I thought the best song – and the best singer – by a long way was the Lithuanian entry sung by Monika Liu, who held the stage brilliantly by standing there and singing, without any fancy staging. She finished a disappointing 14th.

Monika Liu

Other entries I enjoyed were: Spain, catchy dance number with excellent choreography that finished 3rd; Moldova, an energetic performance full of humour (7th); and Norway, whose entry Give that Wolf a Banana was enjoyably deranged (10th). The less said about the other entries the better. I’m still as baffled by how Sam Ryder’s entry for the UK, Space Man, did so well in the jury votes as I am that Lithuania did so badly there, but there you go. What do I know?

I’ll state without comment that the Ukrainian jury gave a maximum douze points to the United Kingdom, but in return the UK jury gave Ukraine nil points

Anyway, three things struck me as I sipped my wine and watched the show:

  1. Ironically the Opera on the radio last night was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which is about a sixteenth century song contest that resembles the Eurovision versiononly in the length of time it goes on for. Perhaps someone should write a modern music drama called Die Meistersinger von Eurovision?
  2. I think the Research Excellence Framework would be much more fun if it were done like the Eurovision Song Contest. Each University regardless of size could be given the same distribution of scores to allocate to the others (but not itself). I can see interesting patterns emerging during that!
  3. When I was formally presented with my DPhil in the summer of 1989, the graduation ceremony took place on the same stage (at the Brighton Centre) on which Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with their song Waterloo.

The Stormont Elections

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on May 8, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday proved to be an historic day in the politics of Northern Ireland, as the counting of votes from elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont on Thursday made Sinn Féin the party with the largest number of seats. This is the first time a republican party has topped the poll, and thus the first time that Sinn Féin has the right to nominate the First Minister under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Whether the leading unionist party (the Democratic Unionist Party) will play its part in forming a new administration remains to be seen. The DUP seem to be keener at manufacturing a crisis over the Northern Ireland Protocol than doing anything positive for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.

For what it’s worth I think that if the DUP had any sense they would actually support the Protocol. Norther Ireland as a whole voted against Brexit, but the DUP helped deliver it anyway. In any case parties in favour of the Protocol are now in the majority in Stormont now.

I’m in no position to provide an expert political commentary on what these results mean for the future, but I will add a couple of observations to counter some silly comments flying around the, especially UK, media.

I saw countless statements that the electoral system used in these elections is “complex” and went on to make misleading statements by misunderstanding or misrepresenting how it works. I don’t think it is at all. The Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies is actually very straightforward and is indeed the same system as used here in the Republic. Much attention was focussed on the share of first-round preferences (of which SF got 29% and the DUP 21%). The reason why the final total of seats is much more even than this is that the DUP lost a number of first-preferences to the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) which picked up about 7.7% of the first preferences, but most TUV voters probably put the DUP as second preference and the DUP would have picked up votes when TUV candidates were eliminated: adding TUV+DUP gives about 29%, roughly the same as SF.

The behaviour of voters in selecting parties below their first choice is more complicated than that and can be very interesting. Some will just vote for their favourite party and not list any alternatives at all. Others will carefully rank all the candidates. This is one of the things that makes STV elections something of a spectator sport, as each round of counting gradually reveals the pattern of transfers. I checked the results regularly on Friday and Saturday as the counts progressed, as I did during the election here in 2020.

Overall I wasn’t surprised that the results came out the way they did between SF and DUP but the surprise is how well the Alliance Party did, more than doubling its seats. When I was a lad the Alliance Party was a moderate Unionist outfit but is now basically neutral on the unionist/nationalist issue and is on other issues a pretty conventional centrist party analogous to the Liberal Democrats in the UK.

The other issue that people have been speculating about is whether these results will lead rapidly to a Border Poll and the prospect of a United Ireland. While it is true that a nationalist leadership of the NI Assembly is a necessary condition for that to happen, it is by no means sufficient. A huge amount of groundwork will have to be done before a fully-developed plan, encompassing difficult issues as healthcare provision and taxation, can be presented to voters. Having seen the fiasco of Brexit, no responsible leader would put anything less than concrete proposals to a public vote. It will take time to develop a proper strategy. A United Ireland would be a very big and difficult fish to land, so patience is definitely required: try to reel it in too quickly and you will lose it.

What is interesting is the emergence of a sizeable block of voters that is agnostic on this issue: whether or not there will be a United Ireland will depend on how these people see things. If the UK economy continues to slide and Westminster is further engulfed by corruption then opinion might shift rapidly towards NI unshackling itself from the corpse. But it’s not there yet. It’s not even clear whether a majority of voters in the Republic would want a United Ireland either. The recent rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic has at least as much to do with issues internal to the Republic – especially the chronic housing shortage – as the goal of a United Ireland.

When Northern Ireland it was set up a century ago, it was prepared in such a way that the electorate was polarized along a Catholic-Protestant religious axis (the boundaries of NI chosen to ensure a Protestant majority). Mostly (but not exclusively) this axis coincided with the Republican-Loyalist one, as well as the usual Right and Left of politics. Over time it seems these alignments have shifted and the overall level of polarization has decreased: the system is losing memory of its initial conditions. The rise of a centrist party such as the Alliance is a manifestation of this.

Words about Higher Education in Ireland

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Politics on May 5, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science”, Simon Harris announced a “funding and reform framework” for Ireland which you can find here (PDF).

It’s a typical neoliberal trick to tie “funding” to “reform” because that immediately sends a message that Ireland’s universities are somehow underperforming in some way other than the fact that they are grossly underfunded. The document however admits that there is a huge funding shortfall caused by lack of Government investment over many years, leading among other things to huge student-staff ratios. Perhaps it’s primarily the Government that need reform rather than universities?

That said, I do agree that if extra money is going to be sent to universities, there should be some guarantee that it is spent on the right things: not only academic staff but also, where appropriate, laboratory facilities and so on. Based on my experience in several institutions, typically over half of  university’s budget is spent on central services, some of which are excellent but others of which are expensive and not fit for any purpose at all other than wasting money and causing frustration.

As for the proposals themselves, I’d just say that it is good to have a Minister who recognizes at least some of the problems and is prepared to make positive noises about addressing them. However, the document itself is extremely vague. Look at this, for example, from the
Government’s Press Release announcing the new “landmark policy on funding higher education and reducing the cost of education for families”:

That’s it.

Since the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Ireland’s fees for undergraduate study are the highest in the EU and with the current cost of living crisis (including exorbitant rents) this is in need of reform.  The response however is that the Minister is “committed” only to reviewing (i.e. not necessarily reducing) the fee over some unspecified but probably lengthy timescale.

As with the other items in the “framework” there is no commitment to anything that will halt the immediate crisis currently afflicting students who are struggling to engage and academic staff whose workloads are skyrocketing. In fact I don’t foresee any prospect of material changes before I retire.

Another thing I’ll mention with deep frustration is that there is nothing in the policy about postgraduate education for which there is no framework at all in Ireland and very little funding. It seems Irish Governments just don’t think this is important aspect of what universities do.

Anyway, back to the “policy”, I know that what will actually happen depends on Mr Harris’s success in winning over cabinet colleagues so at this stage he can’t be very specific, but the media somehow dress all this nebulosity up as a policy, which it isn’t: it’s a collection of aspirations.

Warm words, perhaps, but just words nevertheless. We won’t find our for a while whether they actually mean anything.

Euclid Launch Concern

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 27, 2022 by telescoper

I saw the following picture on Twitter. It was taken during a talk at the annual Euclid Consortium Meeting (which I am not at) and it gives a not -very-optimistic update about the timescale for the launch of Euclid.

Picture Credit: Hervé Aussel

I thought a delay in the launch was inevitable as soon as news broke of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (see here) because the original plan was to launch on a Russian Soyuz vehicle. The subsequent decision by the Russians to remove all their personnel from the launch site at Kourou (see here) made these even more likely, although according to the slide not certain.

The basic problem is that Plan B involves launching Euclid on an Ariane 6 rocket (which comes in two varieties, Ariane62 and Ariane64, with two and four payloads boosters respectively). The problems are (a) that Ariane 6 is that it hasn’t yet had its first flight and (b) Euclid isn’t the only spacecraft having to find an alternative launcher. The competition from commercial and military satellites may mean a lengthy delay to the Euclid Launch unless lobbying succeeds at a political level, which is what the last lines of the slide are about.

Being one of life’s pessimists I think a long delay is the likeliest outcome, though this is not based on any specific knowledge at all about the discussions going on and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. I am now however seriously wondering whether Euclid will be launched before I retire!

Decision Day for the French!

Posted in Politics on April 24, 2022 by telescoper

(from Private Eye)

Update: I wouldn’t have found it exactly inspiring to have to choose between a neoliberal drone and a fascist dunderhead but would have voted for the least bad alternative, as the French electorate seems to have done.

French Election Update

Posted in Politics with tags , on April 10, 2022 by telescoper

The first round of voting in the French Presidential Election is under way today and it reminded of this clipping from a few years ago:

(Read the caption.)

Rory O’Neill aka Panti Bliss

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on April 2, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I attended an event at the Maynooth Students Union featuring Rory O’Neill, an LGBT+ rights activist who strongly involved in the campaign for Equal Marriage leading up to the referendum of 2015. Rory is perhaps better known in his drag persona, Panti Bliss. Rory left Panti at home for this event but it was extremely interesting and enjoyable – and a bit sweary! – to hear him talk about his life and experiences, especially why he became an activist and how he started out as a drag performer.

One of the things I remember very well was how he has spent time in countries where homosexuality is still unlawful talking to young LGBT+ people who a lack of hope that life can get better. He countered that Irish society even just a couple of decades ago was deeply homophobic and is now much more inclusive towards LGBT+ people. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s a heck of a lot better than it was. Ireland proves that things do get better.

Although I’m a bit older than Rory, didn’t grow up in Ireland, and have had a very different career, much of his story did nevertheless resonate with me. I’ve said a number of times on this blog that if someone had told me back in 1988 (when the infamous Section 28 was brought in by the Thatcher Government to attack a community already reeling from the effects of AIDS) that in 25 times there would be equal marriage in the UK I simply would not have believed them. Rory said something very similar yesterday.

Anyway, although there wasn’t a huge turnout for the event yesterday I’m very glad I attended and am grateful for the Maynooth Access Programme for organizing it. The event also gives me an excuse to post this clip of Panti Bliss giving a brilliant (and now famous) speech at the Abbey Theatre in 2014.

Lecturing in the Dark

Posted in Biographical, Education, History, Maynooth, Politics with tags , on March 9, 2022 by telescoper

We’ve had several power cuts on Maynooth University campus today.

I had a lecture during one of them. The lecture went ahead with the usual chalk-and-talk, although the room was a bit on the dark side without any electric lights. More seriously I could neither record nor webcast the lecture because there was no internet so I couldn’t connect to Panopto. Ironically, the topic of the lecture was electromagnetism.

After a couple of false starts we finally got power back this afternoon, but the power failure seems to have had a number of fairly drastic consequences. Our office machines which are currently unable to access the internet. Also the data projector in our computer lab seems to be completely bust, but that is less important than the fact that the none of lab computers is working. Fortunately we don’t have a lab session on Wednesday afternoons, but I hope we can get this fixed before tomorrow when we do have a lab session!

By the way this is what our computer lab looks like:

Fortunately, next week is study week (the week containing the St Patrick’s Day holiday) which will give us time to regroup. It can’t come soon enough!

With an energy crisis looming as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine I wouldn’t bet against much worse problems with electricity supply in the near future. I’m old enough to remember the Oil Crisis of 1974, with petrol rationing, regular power cuts and the Three Day Week. I wonder if we will soon be experiencing something similar again?

Update: after yet another power cut I decided to go home earlier than usual. When I got back to my house in Maynooth at 6pm I saw no sign that the power had been off at all!

Calamity Again

Posted in Art, History, Maynooth, Poetry, Politics with tags , , on March 7, 2022 by telescoper

This lunchtime I attended a public vigil for Ukraine on Maynooth University campus. It was a moving experience, not least because of the presence of a Ukrainian PhD student, Oleg Chupryna, who addressed the gathering. Although he has lived in Ireland for over 20 years many members of his family are still in Ukraine. They were in Kharkiv when the invasion happened, having refused to leave because they didn’t think the Russians would actually invade, but then found themselves under relentless shelling by Russian artillery. His family managed to flee Kharkiv for the countryside a couple of days ago, but are still trapped in Ukraine, apart from one family member who has arrived safely in Dublin and who read the following poem (in Ukrainian) by Taras Shevchenko, followed by the English translation. you see below.

Shevchenko (who was a painter and illustrator as well as a poet) was born a serf, so the use of the word slavery is not metaphorical. Sales of artwork enabled him to be  bought out of his serfdom in 1838, but he spent a great deal of time imprisoned by the Russian authorities. He died in St Petersburg in 1861 at the age of 47.

The poem Calamity Again  was written in 1854, in the middle of the Crimean War, at which time Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. The poem was written at Novopetrovsk Fortress, depicted in the above painting by Shevchenko himself.

Dear God, calamity again! …
It was so peaceful, so serene;
We but began to break the chains
That bind our folk in slavery …
When halt! … Again the people’s blood
Is streaming! Like rapacious dogs
About a bone, the royal thugs
Are at each other’s throat again.


Offering Refuge

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on March 6, 2022 by telescoper

As the humanitarian consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold, Ireland expects something like 20,000 refugees to arrive many of whom will require accommodation. Around 1300 have arrived in Ireland so far, but these have mainly been taken in by Ukrainian family members and friends already in Ireland.

(The number of Ukrainian refugees so far accepted into the UK is just 50.)

We had a Department Meeting on Friday which began with a minute’s silence for the dead, the bereaved and all those suffering in ways we can’t even begin to imagine as a result of Russia’s heinous crimes in Ukraine. As I stood in silence I felt frustration at the smallness of the gesture; that feeling wasn’t at all assuaged by making a donation to the Irish Red Cross appeal later that evening.

When I learnt that the Irish Red Cross has launched an appeal for emergency accommodation I saw the chance to do something practical. I have a spare room, which I decided to register as potential accommodation for a refugee. It’s quite a small bedroom but can be made available very quickly once I’ve moved a few things out and given it a clean. At least the bed is quite comfortable: I know because I slept in it for several weeks before my new bed arrived. Of course if anyone comes they can have the run of the rest of the house.

Pledging accommodation in this way is not a trivial process. The property and the host have to be vetted to check that nothing nefarious is going on. I expect I’ll be contacted next week for this purpose and if my pledge is accepted and an appropriate individual found, a case officer will be assigned to ensure everything is going OK. There’s no guarantee my offer will be accepted, though. I’ll just have to wait and see.

As a single adult it would obviously be more appropriate to host another single adult. It crossed my mind that an offer of accommodation in a university town such as Maynooth might enable a student or academic from Ukraine to continue their studies in some way, but I’m not going to limit the range of possible people to that. I can offer an LGBT+ friendly environment too if that is important to anyone.

I’ve lived alone for quite a long time now so it is not without apprehension that I registered this pledge. I can see that there may be many difficulties, but they would be as nothing compared to the difficulties facing the Ukrainian people right now. I feel it’s the least I could do.

I am glad that, within the European Union, Ireland is playing its part in the response to the Ukraine crisis. When I look across the Irish Sea at the United Kingdom’s callous indifference to refugees alongside its half-hearted implementation of sanctions on Putin’s evil regime, I am once more glad I no longer live in a country with such a corrupt and mean-spirited Government.