Archive for Irish Politics

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.

Taxing Figures

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , on January 29, 2020 by telescoper

Following the campaign for the forthcoming General Election in Ireland has confirmed (not entirely unexpectedly) that politicians over here are not averse to peddling demonstrable untruths.

One particular example came up in recent televised debate during which Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar talked about his party’s plans for tax cuts achieved by raising the salary at which workers start paying the higher rate of income tax. Here’s a summary of the proposal from the Irish Times:

Fine Gael wants to increase the threshold at which people hit the higher rate of income tax from €35,300 to €50,000, which it says will be worth €3,000 to the average earner if the policy is fully implemented.

Three thousand (per year) to the average earner! Sounds great!

But let’s look at the figures. There are two tax rates in Ireland. The first part of your income up to a certain amount is taxed at 20% – this is known as the Standard Rate. The remainder of your income is taxed at 40% which is known as the Higher Rate. The cut-off point for the standard rate depends on circumstances, but for a single person it is currently €35,300.

According to official statistics the average salary is €38,893 per year, as has been widely reported. Let’s call that €38,900 for round figures. Note that figure includes overtime and other earnings, not just basic wages.

It’s worth pointing out that in Ireland (as practically everywhere else) the distribution of earnings is very skewed. here is an example showing weekly earnings in Ireland a few years ago to demonstrate the point.

 

This means that there are more people earning less than the average salary (also known as the mean)  than above it. In Ireland over 60% of people earn less than the average.  Using the mean in examples like this* is rather misleading – the median would be less influenced by a few very high salaries –  but let’s continue with it for the sake of argument.

So how much will a person earning €38,900 actually benefit from raising the higher rate tax threshold to €50,000? For clarity I’ll consider this question in isolation from other proposed changes.

Currently such a person pays tax at 40% on the portion of their salary exceeding the threshold which is €38,900 – €35,300 = €3600. Forty per cent of that figure is €1440. If the higher rate threshold is raised above their earnings level this €3600 would instead be taxed at the Standard rate of 20%, which means that €720 would be paid instead of €1440. The net saving is therefore €720 per annum. This is a saving, but it’s nowhere near €3000. Fine Gael’s claim is therefore demonstrably false.

If you look at the way the tax bands work it is clear that a person earning over €50,000 would save an amount which is equivalent to 20% of the difference between €35,300 and €50,000 which is a sum close to €3000, but that only applies to people earning well over the average salary. For anyone earning less than €50,000 the saving is much less.

The untruth lies therefore in the misleading use of the term `average salary’.

Notice furthermore that anyone earning less than the higher rate tax threshold will not benefit in any way from the proposed change, so it favours the better off. That’s not unexpected for Fine Gael. A fairer change (in my view) would involve increasing the higher rate threshold and also the higher rate itself.

All this presupposes of course that you think cutting tax is a good idea at this time. Personally I don’t. Ireland is crying out for greater investment in public services and infrastructure so I think it’s inadvisable to make less money available for these purposes, which is what cutting tax would do.

 

*Another example is provided by the citation numbers for papers in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. The average number of citations for the 12 papers published in 2019 was around 34 but eleven of the twelve had fewer citations than this: the average is dragged up by one paper with >300 citations.