Archive for the Politics Category

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.

And so it begins..

Posted in Film, Politics on June 13, 2020 by telescoper

#ShutDownSTEM & #ShutDownAcademia

Posted in Politics on June 10, 2020 by telescoper

For more information see here (or here or here).

D-Day 76 Years On.

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on June 6, 2020 by telescoper

Just a reminder that it was 76 years ago today, on June 6th 1944, that antifascists began landing on the beaches of Normandy.

Welcome to Pride Month 2020!

Posted in Covid-19, LGBT, Politics on June 1, 2020 by telescoper

Once again it’s time for a month of LGBTQ Pride.

Although the main Dublin Pride event has been cancelled this year because of the Covid-19 outbreak, there are still a number of virtual events going on.

Thus year more than any other Pride gives us an important opportunity to express solidarity to all grieving and fighting for a better world in the face of monstrous injustices such as the murder of George Floyd.

That includes those of us who are white and gay acknowledging that systematic racism exists and that by keeping quiet and doing nothing we are, however unintentionally, complicit in it.

This Violation

Posted in Film, Politics with tags , , , on May 31, 2020 by telescoper

A typically perceptive and powerful piece in the Guardian by Fintan O’Toole about dignity, violation and the Dominic Cummings has been turned into a short film by Mark Cousins. It features a hundred people, from all walks of life, each reading a line of it to camera. It’s very well worth watching.

Predictive Blogging

Posted in Covid-19, Cricket, Opera, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 27, 2020 by telescoper

News has emerged that on 14th April 2020 Dominic Cummings doctored an old blog post to make it look like he had predicted a coronavirus outbreak. Given the indisputable fact that Mr Cummings is a career liar this should not in itself come as a surprise. What might surprise a few people is that this episode reveals that this self-styled genius is must in reality be rather stupid if he thought he could get away with hiding such a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Still, the truth obviously no longer matters in post-Brexit Britain so he probably won’t face any serious consequences.

I, of course would, never add things to old blog posts to make myself look clever.

I would, however, like to point out just a few of the various uncannily accurate predictions I have made in the course of my almost twelve years of blogging.

For example, in this September 2009 review of a performance of La Traviata by Welsh National Opera I wrote:

My love of Italian opera makes me regret even more that the UK will be be leaving the European Union in 2020.

And in this account of the May 2015 England versus New Zealand Test Match at Lord’s you will find:

… it was still quite gloomy and dark. My mood was sombre, thinking about Donald Trump’s forthcoming victory in the 2016 United States Presidential Elections.

My prescience is not only limited to politics, however. In my 2013 post about the Queen’s Birthday Honours List you will read:

The name that stood out for me in this year’s list is Professor Jim Hough, who gets an OBE. Jim is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Glasgow, and his speciality is in the detection of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves haven’t actually been detected yet, of course, but the experimental techniques designed to find them have increased their sensitivity by many orders of magnitude in recent years, Jim having played a large part in those improvements. I imagine he will be absolutely thrilled in February 2016, when gravitational waves are finally detected.

You see now that Niels Bohr wasn’t quite right when he said “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. Sometimes it’s the past that’s hardest to predict.


An Open Letter from Irish Scientists

Posted in Politics, Science Politics on May 25, 2020 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news of an Open Letter from Irish Scientists (and other academics) that is doing the rounds. The letter begins:

Five years ago over 1,000 Irish scientists wrote to government urging a rebalancing of funding toward basic research. Basic discovery research is exactly the type that produces the scientists, skills and serendipitous solutions we need when faced with an unexpected challenge like COVID-19. Half a decade on from that letter little has changed for the better. The crisis in Irish research has deepened and risks becoming fatal if not addressed. To avoid another decade of drift that the nation cannot afford we the undersigned believe Ireland needs to establish a dedicated cabinet-level Department for Higher Education & Research. We fear the country will pay the price in future crises and miss opportunities for innovation if government doesn’t recommit to proper investment and attention for higher education and research urgently.

You can read the rest of it here where, if you are so minded, you can also sign it (as I have done; I’m Number 307).