Archive for BrExit

Diversity, Inclusion, Rain and Brexit

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on October 11, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am in a very rainy London. I arrived yesterday for a meeting of the IOP Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which was an interesting occasion with many new things about to unfold, tempered by a bit of sadness that the wonderful Head of Diversity at the IOP, Jenni Dyer, is leaving shortly to take up a new job. However will we manage?

Anyway, instead of flying back to Ireland last night after the meeting, I stayed in London last night because today there is an ordinary meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House, to be followed by a Club Dinner. I’ll be going home to Ireland tomorrow.

Unfortunately the weather has put a dampener on my plans to spend a bit of time wandering around London because it is raining quite heavily and is forecast to do so for the rest of the day. Still, at least the hotel I’m in has WIFI so I can get a few things done this morning before venturing out into the inclement conditions.

Meanwhile the pound is rising against the euro on optimism that there may be a Brexit deal on the horizon after yesterday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar. Nobody knows the details but it seems likely that it’s basically the same as Theresa May’s `deal’ except that the `backstop’ is to be replaced by what is effectively a  customs border in the Irish Sea.  My personal preference would be Boris Johnson thrown in the Irish Sea.

I doubt the Democratic Unionists will be happy with this, but Johnson is probably gambling that enough Labour quitlings will vote for it that he no longer needs their support. Of course, that all depends on whether what was discussed yesterday turns into a concrete legally-binding agreement signed off by the EU.

P.S. Bookies’ odds on a No-Deal Brexit on October 31st have drifted out from 4/1 to 5/1.


Johnson Close To Deal

Posted in Politics with tags , on September 25, 2019 by telescoper

Thank you, Google, but that isn’t really the information I was looking for.

Across the Border

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on September 5, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve got a bit of time to spare between breakfast and the start of a new day of talks at INAM2019 so I thought I’d rattle off a short travelblog.

I went straight to Armagh Observatory and Planetarium from the bus station when I arrived yesterday so had to check in to my hotel after the end of the day’s session. I had reserved a room online (and brought the confirmation with me) so I thought that would just take a few minutes. Unfortunately the hotel had lost the booking so had to start again, which took quite a while. However, to make up for the inconvenience they put me in an `Executive Room’ with a balcony. It is indeed quite luxurious and I now wish I were staying for more than one night. Sadly, however, I have to get the bus back to Dublin this evening as I have lots to do tomorrow.

On the trip up here the main thing I noticed after crossing the border into Northern Ireland was the number of Union flags on display on telegraph poles, lampposts and buildings. I learned from a booklet in the conference pack that the Orange Order was founded in County Armagh and there are obviously strong unionist sentiments around. Flags and sashes and regalia as symbols of national and/or religious identity seem to mean a lot to some people. I find it all rather baffling.

Among the more trivial things I noticed were a change in typeface for the road signs, the fact that roads are numbered as in Great Britain (e.g. `A28′) rather than in Ireland, and that post boxes here are red rather than green. Oh, and Tayto crisps are different here too..

Of course yesterday was a big day in the United Kingdom Parliament, with Boris Johnson suffering yet another humiliation as a cross-party bill was put through the House of Commons attempting to stop a `No Deal’ Brexit. Johnson then attempted to call a General Election but failed to secure sufficient votes, Jeremy Corbyn refusing to support the motion unless and until the No-Deal Bill becomes law.

I don’t know where these shenanigans will lead, but it seems to me that humiliating Boris Johnson is a good thing in itself so I watched the events last night in my hotel room with some satisfaction. Of course if there is a General Election, a new Parliament could repeal the `No Deal’ Act anyway, so in the long run this could all amount to very little.

I’m still eligible to vote in a UK General Election but there is one soon I really don’t know what I’ll do.

ERC Starting (and Finishing) Grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 3, 2019 by telescoper

Just time for a quick note to announce that the European Research Council has announced the winners of the latest round of `Starting Grants’ (which are intended to further the research plans of early career researchers). Full details are here. Congratulations to all the winners, and especially  Erminia Calabrese in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University!

In all, 408 applicants were selected for funding, hosted in 24 different countries. The split by nationality and discipline is as follows:

I’ll make two comments on the numbers.

First, the United Kingdom is host to a total of 64 awards. It is however very unclear what will happen in the case of a `No Deal’ Brexit in which the British Government refuses to honour its existing financial commitments. Hopefully even in this case these grants will go ahead in some form (perhaps funded directly by the UK).

Second, note that there is only one award for Ireland and nothing in either Physical Sciences or Life Sciences. This is very disappointing, but is probably a fair reflection of the Irish governments ongoing failure to invest in basic science.

It’s not that the Irish aren’t good at research. Here is another graphic that shows that 7 Irish researchers were actually awarded grants under this scheme, but none of them chose to hold their awards in Ireland:



That tells you something about the environment for early career researchers in this country.

The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union makes its future participation in such schemes unlikely. Brexit could be a great opportunity for the research community in Ireland, if only the Irish Government would seize it, but it would first need to recognize the benefits of increasing investment in research. Sadly I don’t think it will.


Brexit and the British Border in Ireland

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on August 31, 2019 by telescoper

The events of the past week have given me even more reason than usual to rant about Brexit, and the damage it is causing even to those who voted for it. So let me take as the subject for this one the absolute claptrap that brexiters are talking about the so-called `Backstop’ which is part of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) negotiated between the United Kingdom and the European Union but voted down three times by the House of Commons. This part of the agreement is designed to allow the free flow of goods and people across the British* Border in Ireland by keeping the United Kingdom in the Customs Union and some parts of the Single Market if no free trade agreement is negotiated between the UK and EU that comes up with alternative ways of achieving this during the transition period allowed for in the WA (which extends at least until December 2020, but could in principle be extended further).

*Note: I consider the term `Irish Border’ to be misleading, so I use the more accurate `British Border in Ireland’.

The first thing to say – and this is blindingly obvious if you have actually read the WA – is that the backstop does not come into play at all if an alternative solution to the Border issue can be found. The fact that leading Brexiters are so exercised by the backstop therefore betrays their belief that no such alternative arrangements exist or can be put in place in the foreseeable future. If such arrangements existed the Brexiters would not be in the slightest bit bothered by the Backstop as it would be irrelevant. The fact that they are opposed to the backstop is an obvious signal that they know there is no technological or other solution consistent with the position into which the UK Government has trapped itself.

So why the constant demand from the ERG et al for the backstop to be removed? And why all the lying about its purpose?

To answer that I think you have to consider the true motivation of the Leave campaign. The purpose of Brexit was not just about the UK leaving the European Union. That was merely intended to be a step along the path to destroying the EU and so destabilizing Europe. The original theory was that Brexit would lead to a parade of other EU nations wanting to leave. That didn’t happen. Indeed the solidarity of the EU in the face of the attacks on it has been quite remarkable.

So now it is Plan B, which is based on the premise that the Achilles Heel of the EU is Ireland. By creating economic and political chaos – and possibly a return to violence, sparked by Britain’s intentional violation of the Good Friday Agreement – in Ireland they will force the EU to offer the UK favourable terms on access to the Single Market. To do so, however, would open the floodgates to other governments who might want to reap the benefits of EU membership without the responsibility that goes with it (as Britain does).

And even if this doesn’t work, Leave supporters will still have to find someone to blame when the cake-and-eat-it Brexit they promised – the `easiest trade deal in history’, `no downside only a considerable upside’, `because we hold all the cards’ Brexit – will never actually materialize. The alternative would be for the whole gang of them to admit they were lying (which we know they were). No prizes for guessing who the scapegoat will be…

The strategy of setting up Ireland as a target for economic aggression may well cause a great deal of pain in the short-term, but I hope and believe that it won’t succeed. For one thing, I don’t think the Irish economy is as vulnerable as the UK government thinks. for another, it may quickly lead to a United Ireland. That, at any rate, is far more likely than Ireland becoming a British colony again, which is what some Brexiters want.

More importantly, however, although Ireland and Britain differ substantially in size, the former will a great advantage over the latter in the world after Brexit: Ireland will still have friends, and Britain won’t.

A Very British Coup

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , on August 28, 2019 by telescoper

Known liar, charlatan and tinpot dictator Boris Johnson.

Got back to Ireland this morning to find that the UK Government has decided to suspend Parliament. The deed is already done:


Remind me, what was all that stuff about the European Union being undemocratic?

Any lingering doubts anyone might have had about the direction in which the United Kingdom might go after known liar Boris Johnson became Prime Minister will have been dispelled this morning by the decision (by a small group within the Cabinet) to prorogue Parliament. There can be no doubt that this is a coup d’état. The parallels with 1930s Germany are chilling. If you ever wondered what you would have done in then, as the Nazis took over, that’s what you’re doing now.

This may allow the populist charlatans behind this manoeuvre to force through their chaotic `no deal’ Brexit, but they cannot be allowed to get away with this. I live in hope that one day they will be brought to book for this scandalous act. When that happens the retribution will be a joy to watch.

This disgraceful episode has made much easier a decision I have been putting off for almost two years. I’m putting my house in Wales up for sale and cutting the last of my ties with the United Kingdom. Enough is enough.

The Myths of UK-Ireland Trade

Posted in Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on August 20, 2019 by telescoper

It is clear now that the UK Government’s strategy on Brexit is one of economic aggression towards Ireland.  Senior Brexiters seem to think that threatening to put up barriers to trade with the Republic will frighten it and the European Union into abandoning the rules of the single market and customs union.

As well as being morally repellent this strategy is also extremely stupid, as is based on a complete misconception of the state of trade between these two countries. For example, one prominent Leave campaigner and former Minister of State recently claimed that 90% of Ireland’s trade is with the UK. That may have been the case in the 1950s but it is certainly not the case now.

In fact, according to the latest figures, only about 11% of Ireland’s exports in goods go to the UK and this figure is falling rapidly. The largest export destination for Ireland within the EU is actually not the UK, but Belgium (11.65%) with Germany just behind on 8.56%. Overall the EU accounts for about 49% of Ireland’s exports; the largest other contribution is the United States on about 29%.

Contrary to popular myth, Ireland’s exports are not dominated by agriculture and food. By far the largest contribution is from chemicals and pharmaceutical products many of which go to Antwerp for onward distribution and/or further processing. This accounts for the large trade figure with Belgium.

Another fact worth mentioning is that while Ireland overall has a healthy trade surplus overall (it exports more than it imports; see above Figure), its trade balance with the United Kingdom is actually negative (i.e. the UK exports more to Ireland than it imports). In 2018, UK exports to Ireland were worth £38.3 billion; imports from Ireland were £21.9 billion, resulting in a trade surplus of £16.4 billion with Ireland. Ireland accounted for 6.0% of UK exports and 3.3% of all UK imports. Ireland was the UK’s 5th largest export market and the 9th largest source of imports. The UK has recorded a trade surplus with Ireland every year between 1999 and 2018.

Brexiters have frequently used the argument that, since the UK has a negative trade balance with the EU, the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU. It’s a wrong argument, of course, but it’s interesting that the Brexiters don’t apply it to Ireland.

There’s no question that the `No Deal’ Brexit which I’ve regarded as inevitable from the outset will disrupt the Irish economy, or at least parts of it, and in the short term, but I agree with the Irish Times analysis from some time ago and a more recent article from the FT that it will cause far greater damage to the UK.

In the longer term, when the UK is out of the European Union I’m sure its trade surplus with Ireland will quickly disappear as Ireland finds alternative (and more trustworthy) trading partners. Irish businesses are already eliminating British companies out of their supply chains and it seems likely that if and when the hard Brexit arrives, Irish customers will be increasingly disinclined to buy British products.

The UK seems to be hoping that some sort of deal with Trump’s America will help it out of the economic hole it has dug for itself, but remember that the UK currently has a trade surplus with the USA. The Americans will be keen to eliminate that during any future trade negotiations.

The really important thing however is not the overall effect on the economy but on the problems it will cause for communities either side of the British border in Ireland. The recently-leaked documents from Operation Yellowhammer make it clear that the UK government `expects a return to a hard border in Ireland’. The implication of this is stark: the UK government is planning to renege on its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, which is an international treaty.

If it goes ahead and does that, then it may be that the economic effects of leaving the single market and customs union are small potatoes compared to the price that will pay for becoming a rogue state. I can’t see the United States, with its approximately 40 million citizens of Irish descent, being keen to support a British government that is so obviously seeking to bully Ireland especially, as seems sadly likely, British actions spark a return to violence in the North.

University News

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2019 by telescoper

As we stagger towards Week 11 of this twice-interrupted Semester I’m back in the office preparing stuff for another set of lectures. This term seems to have gone on forever, largely because of the two breaks (one at half-term around St Patrick’s Day, and other other for Easter). Now, though, the end is in sight. Or at least the examination period is: there are just two more weeks of lectures, ending on 10th May then a short break, then examinations start (on 17th May). Then, of course, there is marking, checking, conflating exam grades with coursework marks, examination boards, and all the other stuff that go on behind the scenes.

I noticed that this weekend’s edition of the Irish Times included a hard copy of a report called Delivering for Ireland: The Impact of Irish Universities which was produced by the Irish Universities Association. In fact the thing given away with the paper is just a summary report (you can download it in PDF format here). The full report (all 86 pages of it) can be downloaded here.

The report is full of interesting information, including this (which I didn’t know before):

The report was produced with the aim of making the case for further investment in Ireland’s universities. It remains to be seen whether the current Irish government will be persuaded. I’m not holding my breath. right-wing governments never seem to be interested in investing in the future. I think the best we can hope for is that Ireland does not continue its policy of slavishly copying English Higher Education policy, especially with the introduction of student loans and high tuition fees.

And talking of the idiocies of the English University system, there is a story going around that the UK Government is planning to make EU students pay full `Overseas’ fees after Brexit. Actually, Higher Education policy is a devolved matter so this can only be directly enforced on English universities. It will, however, be hard for Scottish Welsh and Northern Irish institutions to resist the consequences.

In fact I’ve long felt that the existing system – in which Home and EU students have to be treated the same way as a matter of law but non-EU students can be charged different (i.e. higher) fees is completely immoral. Once at university students are all taught the same way so why should some be charged more than others because they happen to come from China? What would you think of a shop that tried to charge people different prices for the same goods depending on the nationality of the customer?

This decision is of course an inevitable consequence of Theresa May’s interpretation of the EU referendum result as a mandate for policies of extreme xenophobia, as is the withdrawal from Erasmus. It is just another symptom of the UK’s descent into narrow-minded insularity. The message this decision sends out is that Britain hates foreigners but it likes their money so the rich ones who can pay extortionate fees will be graciously allowed to come here to get fleeced. Does the government really think that EU citizens are daft enough to come to a country that identifies itself in such a way? I don’t think they are. They’ll just find somewhere else to go, and the consequence for UK universities will be severe. I am confident this will push more than one UK higher education institution into bankruptcy.

Anyway, even if the the Irish university continues to be under-resourced, it will at least continue to welcome students from the EU on the same basis as before. So if you’re a European student who was thinking about studying in England, why not come to Ireland instead? It’s far cheaper, and we even have the same weather…

Der Englische Patient

Posted in Politics with tags , , on April 7, 2019 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this brilliant cartoon by Jürgen Tomicek

A Change of Units

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 29, 2019 by telescoper

To round off a very strange week I’ve just been to an interesting talk by Dr Bajram Zeqiri of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (UK) about imminent changes to the International System of Units (usually known as SI units). In a nutshell, what is to happen is that the current seven base units are to be redefined in terms of fundamental constants. In effect this means that the these constants will fix the standard units rather than the other way round. For more details, see here. The change is due to come into effect on 20th May 2019.

Our speaker Dr Zeqiri is nearing the end of a short tour of Ireland speaking about these changes. Before giving the third talk on this subject talk today, 29th March 2019, thought to be the date on which the United Kingdom would leave the European Union, he wondered whether he might be able to claim political asylum in Ireland. Fortunately, today is not Brexit Day and following today’s events in Westminster it is by no means certain when that might be or indeed whether Brexit will even happen at all…