Archive for ireland

Signs of the Times

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve spent most of today on a secret mission so I’ve just going to do a brief post before I go home.

Since there’s a General Election campaign going on in Ireland, I thought I’d share the above picture I took on the Kilcock Road. Posters like this are a bit of a tradition at election time in Ireland. I’ve never seen anything like them in England or Wales. I’m told posters like this started going up in Dublin the day the election was announced, but it took a day or two for them to appear in Maynooth. There has been talk of banning this sort of display on environmental grounds, but they’re still here.

Other news on the election  is that two opinion polls have been published that must make uncomfortable reading for the incumbent Taioseach Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael party. The results with breakdown of first-preference votes for Fine Gael (FG), Fianna Fáil (FF) and Sinn Féin (SF) are:

  • Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitude: FF 32%; FG 20%; SF 19%
  • Irish Times/IPSOS-MRBI: FF 25%; FG 21%; SF 21%

Both are based on quite small samples (923 and 1200 respectively) and consequently have quite large margins of error (3.3% and 2.8% respectively) so one shouldn’t get too excited by the fact that they differ by quite a bit. Moreover the transferable vote system adopted in Irish elections makes it difficult to translate the percentage of first-preference votes into seats in the Dáil because that depends a lot on transfers of lower-ranked preferences. I would however make the inference that it’s very unlikely that any party will get an overall majority on February 8th.

Another thing I’d say is that regardless of one’s voting preferences it seems to me quite wrong for the state broadcaster to pretend that this is a two-horse race and exclude Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou McDonald from its planned election debate. The Fine Gael leader seems very opposed to SF being represented in this debate and in my opinion it would serve him right if his party ended up in third place.

Oh, and I should point out that as a consequence of the referendum held in 2018, as of January 2020 blasphemy is no longer a criminal offence in Ireland.

 

Election Time in Ireland!

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , on January 15, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday, in response to a request from the Taioseach Leo Varadkar, the Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins dissolved the 32nd Dáil Éireann. There will be a General Election on 8th February (unusually, on a Saturday) to determine the composition of the 33rd Dáil. So we now have three and a half weeks of electioneering. Sigh.

The previous administration, headed by Mr Varadkar, was a minority Government led by his Fine Gael party supported in a `confidence-and-supply’ arrangement by Fianna Fáil. These two parties have more-or-less alternated in running Ireland since Independence, and both could be characterized as centre-right, Neoliberal parties. Fine Gael MEPs sit with the EPP group in the European Parliament while Fianna Fáil’s sit with RE (formerly ALDE). In terms of UK politics FG is closer to the Conservative Party (though not as far to the right) and FF to the Liberal Democrats. There’s therefore even less of a gap between FG and FF than their closest UK equivalents. Incidentally Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have their roots in the chaos of the Irish civil war in response to the Anglo-Irish Treaty: FG was pro-Treaty and FF anti-Treaty.

The real question to be answered in this election is whether anything might happen to break the right-wing hegemony that has held sway for so long in the Republic. I would to believe so but, frankly, I doubt it. Despite the Varadkar administration’s abject failures on housing and health (led by two spectacularly useless Ministers), and the fact that these two issues are likely to prove extremely important during the campaigns, I feel the innate conservatism of the Irish electorate will led yet again to another FG/FF combination. One of the worries that comes with that is a continuation of the present chronic underfunding of Irish universities.

I am not sure at this point who I’ll be voting for – I don’t yet know who’s standing in my constituency of Kildare North – but it won’t certainly be either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The strongest left-wing party in Ireland is Sinn Féin and I like many of their progressive policies. My main reservation about voting for them is that I’m not a nationalist. Although I would love to see a United Ireland, I consider myself to be an internationalist and find some of the rhetoric of Irish nationalism very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I believe it would be good for Ireland to have a strong representation from Sinn Féin in the 33rd Dáil Éireann. Other possible leftish parties include the Green Party, Labour and the Social Democrats.

Incidentally, the voting system for General Elections in Ireland is basically the same as that for the European Parliamentary Elections last year, but with a larger number of constituencies (40 instead of 3). Between them these constituencies elect 159 Teachtaí Dála (TDs) (the equivalent of MPs), an average of about 4 per constituency. There are actually 160 seats, but the Speaker is re-elected automatically. The Single Transferable Vote system is used, meaning that voters have a single ballot paper on which they rank the candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the lowest number of first-preference votes is eliminated and their second preference votes redistributed. Candidates are thus progressively eliminated until the requisite number of TDs is selected.

My constituency is Kildare North which elected 1 Social democrat, 1 Fine Gael and 2 Fianna Fáil TDs last time. This is a primarily rural constituency which is, on the whole, rather affluent, as is reflected in the above result.

The Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative Begins

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2020 by telescoper

I was caught on the hop this morning by the formal announcement that twenty new professorships for women have been created in Ireland. I hadn’t expected this announcement to come so quickly since the idea was only floated in November 2018. There is a piece in the Irish Times about today’s announcement here.

I blogged about this scheme here when it was announced, a little over a year ago. The appointments are to be in areas where there is “clear evidence” of significant under-representation of women, such as physics, computer science and engineering.

I’m delighted that two of these new positions will be at Maynooth University, one in Computer Science and one in Physical Geography (in the area of Climate Science). These areas were selected as being of particularly high strategic priority.

The 20 new Chairs represent the first tranche of positions out of 45 planned under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative. I understand there will be two further rounds. I do hope that we might get a position in physics at Maynooth in a subsequent round. I note however that there will be a Professorship in Theoretical Physics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. I’ll be sure to pass on the advertisement here when it appears.

Reactions to this scheme among people I know have been very varied, so it seems a good topic on which to have a simplistically binary poll:

For the record, I should state that although I had reservations when about this scheme when it was first announced, largely due to lack of detail about how it was to be implemented, I am now very enthusiastic about it and hope it is successful in its aims.

I will however also repeat that this initiative should not distract attention away from the need for Irish higher education institutions to have much better promotion procedures; see, e.g. here. There are plenty of female academics at lecturer level in Irish universities, but they seem to face serious difficulties getting promoted to Professorships.

Change in Northern Ireland

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on December 17, 2019 by telescoper

One of the potentially most significant outcomes of the 2019 General Election, but one barely mentioned in the English media, was what happened in Northern Ireland. For the first time ever, a majority of the MPs elected in the six counties were nationalist. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) gained two seats to add to the seven of Sinn Féin (including a significant gain in Belfast North) while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two to finish with eight. The remaining seat went to the Alliance, originally a moderate unionist party but now basically a liberal centrist (and anti-Brexit) party.

Here’s how the electoral map of Northern Ireland changed:

Sinn Féin seats are dark green, DUP orange, SDLP light green and Alliance yellow.

In terms of the popular vote, the DUP+UUP got 42.3% whereas SDLP+ Sinn Féin got 37.7. Both SF and DUP lost vote share compared to 2017 (by 6.7% and 5.4% respectively) at the expense of the Alliance (up 8.8%) and SDLP (up 3.1%).

Incremental differences, perhaps, but significant nonetheless – especially as Brexit hasn’t yet happened. After Brexit there will be a border in the Irish Sea, which will bring the end of partition one step closer. The probability of seeing a United Ireland in my lifetime has definitely increased.

It was no surprise to see the hashtag `#UnityPlan’ trending on Twitter immediately after the election. Irish unification will only happen if there is a public vote and a majority on both sides of the border agree. For that vote to be fair it is vital that there is a definite plan on how to proceed in the event that the vote is in favour, so the public know what they are voting for. The Irish should not make the mistake that Britain did over Brexit.

For many unionists religion was the primary reason for wanting to remain in the United Kingdom at the time of partition in 1921: Protestants felt that their identity would be threatened if they were made to join the Catholic South. Maybe they were right to feel nervous, as the original constitution of the Irish Free State enshrined “the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church”.  But the section including that phrase was deltd from the Constitution way back in 1973 and the Roman Church has far less influence in the Republic than it did. Ireland is now an open and progressive country, so I hope those fears have receded.

Just to confuse matters even further I should mention that my Grandfather, the one born in Belfast, to whom I owe my Irish citizenship,  was a protestant republican…

Those in the North who wish to keep their British passports should be able to do so in a United Ireland, just as those of us who were born in Britain but now live in Ireland can keep ours. I’ll be keeping mine, at least until it expires…

P.S. It is worth mentioning (primarily for British friends) that there are three counties in Ireland that belong to the province of Ulster but are not part of Northern Ireland as it was formed after partition: these are Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal. The northernmost point of Donegal, Malin Head, is actually the northernmost point on the island of Ireland.

The Necessity for De-Anglicising Irish Universities

Posted in Education, History with tags , , , , on November 17, 2019 by telescoper

Way back in 1892 Douglas Ross Hyde (who later became the First President of Ireland) delivered a famous speech to the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin on the subject of The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland. You can find the text of the speech here, and it’s well worth reading because much of what Hyde says is still relevant to the state of independent Ireland. It’s by no means a xenophobic anti-English rant, by the way, if that’s what you are tempted to infer it is based on the title.

I was struck by a theme which comes up repeatedly in Hyde’s speech. Here, for example:

It has always been very curious to me how Irish sentiment sticks in this half-way house –how it continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them; how it continues to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationality, and at the same time throws away with both hands what would make it so.

Having moved to Ireland to take up a position in an Irish university relatively recently I have been particularly struck by the tendency of those in charge of higher education in Ireland to copy slavishly the actions of the English government. I say `English’ specifically because higher education is devolved within the UK and there are different policies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. While it is true that we haven’t got a REF or a TEF yet or ridiculously high tuition fees, but that is probably just because of inertia. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if any or all of these were introduced before too long.

(As things stand students at Irish universities do not have to pay tuition fees as such but they do have to pay a `student contribution’ of up to €3000, which is a fee in all but name. There is more state help for disadvantaged students in Ireland than in England too. In most respects the situation here is similar to the regime that held in England prior to 2012, when £9000 year fees were brought in following the Browne Review. The question is whether England will cut university fees before Ireland gets round to increasing them. )

The current Irish government – which is of neoliberal hue – is presiding over a worsening situation in Irish universities, with funding for Irish undergraduate students failing to keep up with increasing numbers. It is hard to resist the feeling that starving the system of state funding is a precursor to increasing student fees to levels seen in England. At the moment English universities have the highest tuition fees in Europe. After Brexit it will be Ireland that takes that dubious honour within the EU.

The situation is even worse at postgraduate level, about which there seems to have been no thought whatsoever at government levels. In contrast to most European countries there is very little state funding for Masters courses in Ireland, so those wanting to do postgraduate degrees generally have to fund their own fees (over €6K per annum in physics) and living expenses. When final-year undergraduate students ask for advice about doing a Masters one is morally obliged to point out to them that they can do a high-quality course in, e.g., Germany or The Netherlands essentially for free, and that’s what many very able students do. Some might return, and bring their skills and knowledge back to Ireland but many won’t. The landscape of higher-education in Ireland does not encourage them to come back.

So what’s the answer to these woes? Well, it won’t solve everything, but a good start would be to stop looking at England for a way to run higher education and look instead at continental models. In this respect Brexit could prove to be an excellent opportunity for Ireland to reinvent itself as a fully European country. Over the years, largely driven by its membership of the European Union, Ireland has steadily reduced its economic dependency on trade with the United Kingdom and increased its connections with mainland Europe. Brexit will probably accelerate that trend.

I think that Ireland now needs to re-examine other sectors and stop the slavish copying of the idiotic policies of English politicians. It could do worse than to start with higher education.

The Case for Irish Membership of CERN

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 16, 2019 by telescoper

In the news here in Ireland this week is a new report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ireland. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in the Oireachtas report. Most of it is about return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science.

Although astronomy is clearly much more interesting than particle physics (😉) in one respect the case of ESO is very like the case of CERN – the facilities do not themselves do the science. We need people to do that.

Irish Regional Accents – Niall Tóibín

Posted in Maynooth, Television with tags , , on November 14, 2019 by telescoper

I heard yesterday that renowned actor and comedian Niall Tóibín passed away yesterday at the age of 89. I knew him best from his role as the priest Frank MacAnally in Ballykissangel which I watched occasionally in the 1990s. This morning I heard a tribute to him on the radio and discovered that he was a bit of an expert on Irish regional accents, so I thought I’d share a clip here.

Living and working in Maynooth, which is not far from Dublin, the accents I hear most frequently are those of the Greater Dublin area. I say “accents” rather than “accent” because, as the clip demonstrates, there is quite a wide variety even in this region. At Maynooth we do have students from as far afield as the North of County Donegal and the South of County Cork (where Niall Tóibín came from). I’m better at identifying accents from the North than the South, and can at least tell the difference between Belfast and elsewhere in Ulster, but other than that although I can spot different accents I’m hopeless at identifying where they come from.

One final thing. Niall Tóibín mentions in this clip that the Cork accent sounds a bit like a Welsh accent. This is not the first time I’ve heard someone say that but I have to admit I can’t hear any resemblance myself!