Politics is a minority sport in some ways. Less than 2% of Irish people are members of a political party. I’m one of those wonks, paying my membership dues to the Irish Green Party for the last 9 years.
I blame my wife for joining. It was the day after the election in 2007, and as the early tallies were coming in, it was clear that Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail had won a spectacular electoral comeback. The Greens, who we’d voted for, had a disappointing election, retaining its representation of 6 Dáil seats. We were disgusted that populist politics had won out once again. “Right, that’s it”, I was told as my wife stormed in the door. “We’re doing something about this. We’re joining the Greens”.
I remember the first few meetings we went to in Dublin, before we moved to Limerick. What struck me about my fellow members was the ways they were so different from each other: I remember solicitors discussing the intricacies of public transport routes with chefs: youth workers arguing about primary health care with software developers. Despite their differences I could see a huge amount in common: the commitment to evidence-based policies; the strong sense that every political change should decrease inequality; a desire to do the right thing in the long-term, even if it wasn’t popular in the short.
I stated earlier that politics is a minority sport, I also think that sometimes we treat politics too much like a sport. Far too often media covers politics in the manner of which ‘team’ is doing better than another; partisans flood social media with reasons why their side is better than the other shower; soundbites from leaders dominate the discourse.
Yet politics can and should be about something else: the ideas which will shape the future of our society; the collective priorities we want to emphasise; the rewarding of work and the protection of those who cannot.
And the big one: climate change – the one area where I fear the Irish political system’s tendency to short-termism and populism will lead to significant hardship for future generations.
Between local and national campaigns, next month’s general election will be my fourth time knocking on doors for Green candidates, this time for the fantastic candidate we have running in Limerick City, James Gaffney. James represents everything I joined the Green Party for: thoughtful, respectful, not afraid to campaign on unpopular issues if they represent the right long-term vision for our country. I know there are many who are pessimistic about the power of politics to change things, but I’ll be knocking on the doors of the voters in Limerick City over the next two months with the firm belief that the Green Party offers a long term vision for a sustainable future.
We Won’t Pay. That’s the slogan of the Right2Water movement, who are opposed to any water charges for residential households. Thousands of people marched in Dublin recently under the this banner, one of a series of protests since Ireland announced it was going to be one of the last rich countries to introduce water charges. It is clear that the introduction of water charges has made people very angry indeed.
I’ve spoken to friends of mine whose opinions I deeply respect, who plan not to pay their water charges. I’ve read the arguments of people who think water charges are wrong, and although they are wide ranging (fears about privatisation, claims that we already pay for water, accusations of waste), they can all be summarised under the effectively concise slogan: “We Won’t Pay”.
I think they’re wrong. And that is a deeply unpopular thought to have.
I don’t think there is a single person who would agree that the current system introduced is problem-free. But I find the “We Won’t Pay” mantra deeply troubling. It represents such a depressing and nihilistic view of what we can accomplish together.
Most people agree that our water infrastructure is pretty awful in this country. We were cutting off the water supply in our capital city because reserves were so low. The water supply has been undrinkable in certain parts of the country for years. There’s a phrase that pops up with depressing regularity in Irish politics: “decades of underinvestment”, which is certainly true of our water supply. I think the reason for this comes down to our attitude towards the State and its capacity to make things better for its citizens.
Rewind to 1977, when we had a General Election. The party then in opposition, Fianna Fáil, didn’t think that it had a chance of winning thanks to some creative gerrymandering of constituencies by the Fine Gael/Labour government (christened the Tullymander). Perhaps because of this, their manifesto was deeply populist and fiscally irresponsible. Included were commitments to abolish local taxation (‘rates’) and motor tax, resulting in a massive and unexpected majority for Fianna Fail. Because this resulted in a large loss of income for local authorities who were responsible for, amongst other things, water supply and sewerage, we are left now with a water system that is not fit for purpose. Of course the difference could have been made up at any time in subsequent decades by an increase in investment at a national level, successive governments ignored long-term infrastructure in favour of policies that would directly increase the cash in voters’ pockets.
It is pretty much universally acknowledged that the 1977 Fianna Fáil manifesto was a disaster for the country. But forty years later we are still holding the same attitudes, which are neatly summed up as “We Won’t Pay”: receive the most you can from government, and pay the least. This is reinforced by an attitude that government is filled with corrupt, venal individuals who must be trusted as little as possible.
“We Won’t Pay” strikes me as appallingly reductionist. It gives us no hope that we can work together as a country to improve equality in this generation, and improve opportunity for future generations. We are so focused on paying as little as possible that we give up so many opportunities to make things better.
Paying for water is a good thing. It allows us to spend more on our water infrastructure, preventing waste in the mains supply. The introduction of domestic metering has allowed us to identify waste inside our homes, as well as providing valuable employment across the country. Could we pay for water in a better way? Of course. Personally I’d like to see greater incentives for conservation, and an investigation of ways that we can make water charges less regressive to people on low incomes. But to dismiss the very concept of charging for water with the phrase “We Won’t Pay” means we’re left with a peculiarly right-wing (pay less taxes and charges, don’t trust the government) view of the world which leaves us with leaks, contamination, and the unappealing prospect of draining water from the River Shannon to meet the water needs of our capital.
The attitude of “We Won’t Pay”, means that we will get governments who prioritise the short term over the long term, who will pursue populism over justice, and who will continue to store up problems for future generations to deal with. Deeply unpopular it may be, but I believe that paying for water is a good thing.
There are 6 days to go until Ireland votes whether to allow same-sex marriage.
The Limerick branch of the YesEquality campaign have been out knocking on doors every weeknight since 9th April. I’ve probably made it out for just over a third of those nights. I am by no means the most prolific, many more have been out more often than I have.
We usually meet at 6pm, after a brief set of introductions and a run through talking points, we head out and knock on doors. Anybody new is warmly welcomed and paired up with someone who has canvassed before. For 2 hours we knock on doors around an estate in Limerick City. About a half of people won’t be in or won’t feel like coming to the door. For the other half we get to have a conversation.
That conversation will go a number of different ways but overwhelmingly it is respectful. If someone comes to the door, invariably we apologise for bothering them. Whether a voter indicates that they are voting yes, or voting no, or are undecided, we ask them if they have any questions or concerns. And at the end of the conversation we thank them for their time.
I have witnessed the incredible strength and dignity of my fellow canvassers as they knock, smile, and ask; night after night. Most people, whether they are voting yes or no, are absolutely lovely. A small proportion are not. But I’m proud to say that I’ve not heard of one canvasser losing their cool. Think of how you would feel to knock on a stranger’s door to ask them for something that you desperately needed, only for them to call you abnormal, or unnatural. Even though this doesn’t happen very often, the fact that it always gets answered with ‘well sorry to bother you and thanks for taking the time to talk to me’ fills me with awe at my fellow canvassers strength and dignity.
I’m a little shy, and even though I have canvassed before as a member of the Green Party, it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I think most of my fellow canvassers are the same: the organisation of this campaign has been remarkably free of ego, we’re not the type of people who are naturally inclined to shout from the rooftops, but we’re at your door because we want to ask, as respectfully as possible, for your vote.
There are times in your life when you make a lot of friends: when you start school or college, your work, or maybe a sport or hobby that you like to do with others. I’m old enough to have finished my education, I run a very small company, and most of my hobbies are fairly solitary, so I never thought that I would have one of those moments where I would make a lot of friends.
But I think and hope that I have. I have met so many absolutely wonderful people over the past 6 weeks. They have reminded me that marriage is not just about love for your spouse, but about the friends beside you who enrich and support that relationship.
As I write this I am tired and sunburnt, my house is a mess, my feet have blisters and I haven’t seen my wife properly in a month (I am not unique – the irony of a marriage referendum campaign putting extreme stress on so many marriages and hoped-for-marriages is not lost on any of us…). But I think of my new friends, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to meet such a wonderful set of people.
This referendum is going to be very close. Despite what the polls say, I’ve knocked on enough doors to realise that nothing can be taken for granted.
The enemy of equality is not prejudice. The enemy of equality is complacency.
The weather was glorious, we had a lovely group of people canvassing, and our message that a Yes vote couldn’t be taken for granted was getting a positive reception with people.
Four of us had canvassing experience (two of us were from the Green Party, one from Labour, and one who had canvassed for an Independent candidate), and so we paired off with people who were knocking on doors for the very first time.
Normally I wouldn’t be conscious of peoples’ sexual orientation, but this time it was different. It was different because those of us who were straight were simply doing some campaigning on a political issue.
The people in our group who are gay were asking people for permission to have the right to get married.
That seems wrong to me. They shouldn’t have to ask. Those of us that already have the right to marry should be working as hard as we can to ensure our gay friends, brothers and sisters have the same right.
So even if you think the marriage equality referendum doesn’t directly affect you, please think about joining your local canvassing team for the Yes Equality campaign. If you’re in Limerick, a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org will get a quick response. If you live elsewhere in Ireland, you can find your local group at https://www.yesequality.ie/yes-equality-map/
The day I got married was the happiest day of my life. I passionately believe in marriage, and being married has been a consistent and powerful force for good in my life.
Those of us who have the right to get married need to step up to the plate and go door to door on behalf of those who don’t have that right.
Friends of ours in Limerick are having a party tonight. A young couple, just about to buy their own house. They are successful in their careers, are active in helping to make Limerick a better place. My wife and I are lucky to be friends with them. We were delighted when they came back from holiday recently and announced they were engaged. There’s not much to be cheerful about these days, but two fantastic people looking to commit their lives to each other is surely something to be celebrated.
Except they can’t.
Two people in love, people of integrity, intelligence and a deep-rooted commitment to making their communities better. Two people in love looking to get married.
Except they can’t.
They can’t because we as a society seem to believe because they are of the same gender, they are less equal than heterosexual couples and can’t get married.
I’m a bit ashamed that I live in a society where some couples are less equal than me and my wife. And it’s about time we changed that.
I’ve read a lot of arguments on why we should continue to discriminate against gay couples. I know that some religious people have a difficulty with gay marriage, but I would respectfully suggest that religious beliefs, even when they are in a majority, are not a licence to discriminate against our fellow citizens.
There are two other arguments that I wanted to touch on however, and they both centre around children.
The first is that marriage is primarily about children, therefore gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married. This argument pushes my buttons a bit because I am in a marriage where we cannot have children, and I would be extremely upset if anyone insinuated that my marriage was in any way less valid than my friends’ just because we don’t have kids. The love I have for my wife and my commitment to my marriage is no less strong because we can’t have kids, and I think it’s faintly ridiculous to view marriage purely in terms of reproduction.
The second is that kids suffer if they don’t have a mummy and a daddy. It’s true that kids can be cruel to each other some times. And some kids, no doubt picking up on the intolerance of their parents, may tease kids whose circumstances are that little bit different to their own. I remember being about six or seven and having stones thrown at me on the way home from school with the words “Proddy” followed by epithets that seven year-olds probably shouldn’t have been using. But the concept that we might stop members of the Church of Ireland, like my parents, from getting married because of the possible reaction from some County Limerick yokels is surely ridiculous. And it’s a cheap trick to use children as an argument to promote intolerance.
It’s no longer conscionable that we continue to discriminate against gay couples. The restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples is an embarrassing anachronism. I hope that my friends, and gay couples around the country, do not have to wait for too much longer before they are allowed to get married.
Every Tuesday evening I volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul, giving leaving certificate Maths grinds to secondary school students in Moyross, Limerick. It’s been ten years since I last taught in a classroom setting and it’s a nice reminder of the buzz you get when teaching, getting to witness that ‘aha’ moment when one of the students grasps a concept.
Moyross is an area known to many Irish people as one of the most disadvantaged areas in Ireland and the statistics bear this out: according to the Census 2011 Small Area data, the area around Corpus Christi primary school where I go to give the grinds has well over 50% unemployment, nearly 80% of families have only one parent, and less than 5% of adults have a third level eduction . Yet despite the fact that many people from Limerick would never venture this direction it’s actually quite a pleasant place to stroll through: one of the few places you would ever see kids kicking a ball around on the street for example.
Teaching for two hours a week in Moyross isn’t going to drastically change the education landscape, granted, but for me it’s an important contribution. The culture of ‘grinds’ is well-embedded in the Irish education system, and it’s almost compulsory to get some form of extra tuition to help you through your leaving cert. This works well for kids who have parents wealthy enough to pay for it (and, anecdotally, many working teachers seem happy to accept payment in cash for this work without bothering the taxman), but for kids who don’t have access to wealthy parents, it puts them at an immediate disadvantage. I used to rent a house in Dublin where over 75% of my neighbours had a third level education: again the equivalent statistic for the area around the primary school where I teach is less than 5%. It’s sad to think that our system might be serving to maintain or even widen that gap, rather than close it.
It would be naive to assume that there are easy solutions here, but it’s always struck me that we’ve never managed to have a good discussion about education in this country. We spend a lot of time talking about inputs (e.g. teacher’s salaries, class sizes and the size of the education budget), but little time thinking about educational outputs and outcomes. Focusing on our standardised test results in literacy, numeracy and science might be a start. The 2009 OECD PISA report (results of a standardised test of 15 year-olds across 65 countries) ranks Ireland 21st out of 65 for reading, 32 out of 65 for maths, and 20 out of 65 for science (data taken from this PDF report, from the table on page 15). Perhaps not extremely shabby, but not exactly wonderful either, especially for a small society hoping to get out of a recession through reaping the benefits of the knowledge economy.
One of our problems is that the debate about education in Ireland is mostly about the producers (i.e. the teachers) rather than the consumers (i.e. the students). Not that I’m trying to apply some third-rate business thinking to our education system, it’s just that when most of the discussion about education comes from teacher’s unions, who for good reason are concerned primarily about their members’ pay and conditions, we end up missing the point a bit. I don’t have an irrational hatred for the teaching profession or their trade unions – for the record I think the teaching unions do a great job in advocating for their members (indeed, their professional approach makes me think that we’re not making the best of the organising ability of some of our best teachers…), I just think we as a society need to shift the debate a bit on to how we can improve educational outcomes for all our children, but particularly those who live in the country’s most disadvantaged areas.
When I was in first year in college, I shared with an American, Tim, who is now president of TNTP, an American non-profit which focuses on working “with schools, districts and states to provide excellent teachers to the students who need them most and advance policies and practices that ensure effective teaching in every classroom”. I’d love to see a similar organisation in Ireland, advocating for more effective teaching, including better teacher evaluation systems. Another innovation across the water that I’d love to see in Ireland is Teach for America, a programme which recruits graduates (mostly from the top Ivy League schools – competition is fierce to get in) to teach for two years in inner-city schools.
I did supply teaching for a few months in Ireland before I headed off to Ghana to do volunteer work for two years – I loved the teaching but it was the atmosphere in the staff room which put me off any notions I had of training to be a teacher when I returned from Africa. It wasn’t just that I was the only one with a lesson plan and a scheme of work, but the pervasive atmosphere of cynicism and unprofessionalism put me off. My heart goes out to committed teachers who have to put up with that every day.
The kids that I teach every week in Moyross are great, they’re eager, intelligent, funny, and ambitious for their future. Teaching them makes me optimistic about the future. I only hope we can give them the education system they deserve to fulfil their potential.
 – see http://maps.pobal.ie – you’ll need a Silverlight plugin and a few hours to waste – really this is nerdvana for stats-minded political people…