25 September, 2009

We can't fight climate change alone

The Welcome Inn on Parnell Street seemed like the right place to retire to after a discussion last night on Lisbon in the Institute for International and European Affairs up on North Great Georges Street.

Sean O'Laoire, the President of the Institute of Architects had organised a colloquium to discuss the Lisbon Treaty. Eoin O Cofaigh author of "A Green Vitruvius Sustainable Architectural Design" kicked things off by talking about his work within the Architects Council of Europe and the European Forum for Architectural Policies. After that Ruairi Quinn, Frank McDonald and myself spoke for a few minutes each, followed by contributions from the floor.

Eoin pointed out the Secretary General of the European Commission is an Irish women, Catherine Day, and that her predecessor was Irish as well. I thought that neatly tackled the concern that Ireland will find it hard to have influence in Brussels.

I talked about the
economic benefits of Lisbon. The case for greater involvement in the European project has never been stronger: the internal market of 500 million Europeans will be where we’ll export the goods and services that will help our economic recovery and our membership of the euro has provided crucial assistance in our banking crisis.

As an environmentalist, I think we need to remain engaged with Europe because of the lead it has taken on issues such as climate change and energy security. Promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy is a new feature of the European Treaties, contained in Lisbon. There's a cheap shot doing the rounds at the moment that there's only five words ("and in particular combating climate change, At. 191.1) in the Treaty, but actually Lisbon goes much further than that. Article 3 specifies a "high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment", and Article 192 builds on Article 191 in specifying how the issues referred to in Art. 191 can be achieved. I like the references to town and country planning in that article; the management of water resources, and measures affecting land use.
As John Gibbons points out the EU has been the only show in town on climate for practically the last eight years.

The Treaty also incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which sets out a range of civil, social and political rights and freedoms recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights and the constitutional traditions of Member States. I think the legally binding nature of it provisions, which will guarantee these rights, is a hugely positive aspect of the Treaty

I spoke about my concerns over Articles 42 and 43 that formalise the European Defence Agency, and particularly the obligation of Member States to offer "aid and assistance by all the means in their power" if an other "Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory." I am unhappy with these aspects of the Treaty, but ultimately I believe that the European Union has been the most successful political project on the Continent in the twentieth century. I remember going to France on a school exchange in the 1970s, and listening to children's parents talking about the horror of a war between French and German soldiers. Frank McDonald talked about how the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s had lasted longer than the siege of Leningrad, and about how ultimately it was the fighter jets from the
United States rather than the European Union that stopped the violence.

Jim Roche of the Irish Anti War Movement spoke from the floor and echoed my concerns. He expressed concern at the presence of European troops in Afghanistan where recently a US CIA drone killed 147 civilians. He also asked why the Treaty didn't give the same emphasis to issues such as education. I pointed out that Article 165 and Art. 166 dealt in detail with education, and that the principle of subsidiarity
(some things are better handled by the individual countries) limited the EU's scope in this area. Ruairi pointed out that the EU can't declare war, that a UN mandate is required, and he carefully differentiated the actions of individual member states from the actions of the EU.

The European Council also agreed on a Solemn Declaration on workers’ rights which confirms the high importance that the Union attaches to: social progress and the protection of workers' rights; public services; the responsibility of Member States for the delivery of education and health services; the essential role and wide discretion of national, regional and local authorities in providing, commissioning and organising services of general economic interest.

I spoke about the advances in equality that had come from Europe, and I think European action has ensured and will continue to lead advances for women; people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and improvements in the environment
. The European Commission and the European Courts have been to the fore in protecting the vulnerable.

Time was running out and I wasn't able to talk about the legal guarantees which clarify that nothing in the Lisbon Treaty makes any change of any kind, for any Member State, to the extent or operation of the Union’s competences in relation to taxation; the Lisbon Treaty does not affect or prejudice Ireland’s traditional policy of neutrality – it confirms that there the Lisbon Treaty does not create a European army, nor does it provide for conscription; and nothing in the Lisbon Treaty or the Charter of Fundamental Rights affects in any way the scope and applicability of the provisions of the Irish Constitution relating to the protection of the right to life, family and education. |Some people have belittled these guarantees, but I feel if you're doing that you might as well make light of the Good Friday Agreement!
I also think the guarantees the Government sought and got on abortion, taxation and neutrality will help clarify the decision in people’s minds. These are all matters for the Irish people to decide, not the EU. If we vote Yes, we’ll keep our Commissioner which will give the Government a direct line to the top table in Brussels.

After the debate we walked down the road to the Welcome Inn, a pub that hasn't changed since it was rebuilt after the Dublin Bombings in 1974. Being the day that was in it we continued the discussion over several pints of Arthur's finest, to celebrate Guinness's 250th anniversary

I believe the presence of the European Union has allowed us to get over the historical challenge of getting on with one neighbouring country with which we've had an uneasy relationship for 800 years. I'm amused that it took a referendum to get Sinn Féin to put a Union Jack on their posters, to illustrate their concerns about a loss of voting strength in Europe. To be honest, I'm happy about Ireland's voting
strength in Europe post Lisbon. I believe that an elegant formula has been found to ensure that smaller nations are well represented, and I believe we're well capable of punching way above our weight. As we downed pints of a local brew that has become a global brand I felt proud to a Dubliner, proud to be Irish and proud to be part of a European Union that continues to change, adapt and progress to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

I'm voting yes on Friday October 2nd. I believe the people of Ireland should ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

22 September, 2009

Lisbon thoughts from ten days out

It was good to get away from the goldfish bowl of Leinster House last night and knock on doors around Dún Laoghaire, seeking a Yes vote.

There's nothing more valuable than direct feedback from people on their doorstep. Last Friday, I was getting a very strong Yes vote, but last night it was more 2/3 Yes, 1/3 No. Coming from the heart of a constituency that has voted consistently in favour of every European Treaty since 1973 that's worrying. I suspect it's still all to play for at this stage.

People are concerned at the defence aspects of the Treaty and I can't blame them. That phrase about 'improving military capabilities' is a hard one to swallow, and I can understand the concerns expressed to me about this issue. In response I've stated that the European Union has been the most successful peace project that Europe has seen in the twentieth century, and that this can and should continue. I believe the EU force in Chad is a force for good in a volatile region. I believe that on balance, the Treaty is a good one. Did the EU arms industry get the fingerprints on the Treaty? Yes, I think they did, but on balance the emphasis on conflict prevention and peace-keeping trumps their lobbying.

One women mentioned to me her concern about Michael O'Leary's contribution to the Lisbon Debate, and I have to say my heart sank when I heard that he was entering the fray. With friends like that... It is now wonder that the CAEUC are putting up 'No to Ryanair Health Care' posters around town. Michael, go easy. (Although one side of me is looking forward to the Michael O'Leary vs. Declan Ganley debate tomorrow.)

Actually, I felt the most thoughtful observation of the evening came from a women who expressed concern at the lack of respect from each camp for the other side. It is true - the worst thing you can do is blindly criticise the other side, without understanding their motives or their reasons for campaigning.

That's why I did a little bit of archive searching on Richard Greene, spokesperson for the Cóir campaign. I got a shiver down my spine when I saw that Cóir is using a quote from my blog on their homepage where I had stated that "Cóir hit the ground running, the monkeys worked." I remember Richard Greene from his period in the Green Party, and I had a look through the Irish Times digital archive to see where he is coming from.

One of my memories is of him telling a great environmental campaigner Mary O'Donnell from West Cork to shut up and sit down at a Green Party Conference, and I also remember him as holding anti-Traveller views. I had forgotten that he had been In Fianna Fáil before he joined the Greens and that he also set up his own political party in the mid 1990s. In the late 1980's he campaigned against the extradition of those who conspired to murder the Northern Secretary Tom King.

In 1990 he was on the executive of Irish National Congress, the aims of which were to seek Irish freedom, unity and peace, seek British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, full access to Irish culture and neutrality. Shortly afterwards he joined the Green Party and was elected in the 1991 local elections.

Later that year, when The Rape Crisis Centre expressed concern about their lack of funding he wrote to the Irish Times to state that "funding for the Rape Crisis Centre above that authorised by the Minister was not a priority for the Eastern Health Board."

In 1992 he wrote to the papers to state his concern that Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution might be up for ‘barter’, and accused the British of occupying part of the National territory. Later that year he was reported as having called for street demonstrations against the ‘murderous’ decision of the Supreme Court in (an) abortion case. By this stage Trevor Sargent stated that “It is no secret that Mr. Greene is marching to a different tune to the other Green Party Councillors, and has put down motions on Travellers and 1916 which have embarrassed them." In March of that year he was writing to the Irish Times seeking to undo the ‘evil wrought by these supposedly learned judges.” He wasn't above picketing judges' home, either. In April he resigned from the Green Party, claiming it was a "totally dangerous totalitarian party which did not allow its members free speech."

Later that year he became Chairman of the Friends of Youth Defence, and later that year of the National Right to Life Federation. He also appeared as the head of the Christian Centrist Party, and ran unsuccessfully in Dublin South. At their candidate launch their chairman Matt Ascough stated that the party “takes its principles when making legislation from the Gospels.”

In 1993 he tried to stop then Minister Howlin from launching an AIDS education ad that contained the “erroneous message that the use of condoms would help to reduce the spread of AIDS." He lost a Court Action. In that year he also supported all rezonings on Dublin County Council.

In 1994 he was identified as the head of a new political party Muintir na hEireann. At the time of the Maastricht Treaty he stated “On June the Second a death occurred. Maastricht died. Maastricht is going to be buried on June 18th. We beat the Danes in 1014, and we can do it again on June 18th”.

Later that year he wrote to the papers, concerned that "population control lobbyists have penetrated the UN’s policy-making committees. More people means more economic activity and more markets, and less people obviously means less markets and declining economic activity."

In a subsequent letter wearing his hat as Chairman of Muintir na hEirinn he viewed Youth Defence as "the great hope and future of the pro-life movement in this country …(we) continue to support Youth Defence in order to help it become even more effective in the struggle to keep the evil of abortion out of Ireland."

In 1995 wearing his anti-divorce hat he demanded that Jewish members of the Oireachtas be sensitive to the majority Christian view in the Country.

Cóir's spokesperson Richard Greene has used various political parties to further his nationalistic, anti-traveller, pro-life, right-wing views. He is a serial rezoner and party joiner. It is important that we know about his chequered past.

Cóir states that their concerns are wages, jobs and taxes.I don't believe that this is the case and I believe they should state where their real interest lies. Last year the mask slipped when they issued a leaflet claiming that under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Court and the Charter of Fundamental Rights could force Ireland to change its laws on issues such as prostitution, abortion, drugs and euthanasia. They also warned of changes in "how we raise and educate our children".

Tellingly under the "Who we are" section of Cóir's website they neglects to give the names of anyone in their organisation. I suspect that Mr. Greene is at the heart of the Cóir project.

09 September, 2009

Doing Nothing is not an Option

1597 pages worth of reports. I'm swamped.

They're coming out my ears, and starting to take over over the desk. 136 pages of NAMA, 388 pages of the Lisbon Treaty, 397 pages of the McCarthy Report and 551 pages of the Commission on Taxation. Oh, and the Kenny Report from 1973, 125 pages: That's a lot of reading.

The current crisis is a huge challenge, but it is also an opportunity to address the 'never again' side to the property bubble. I'm fairly confident that we'll strike the right balance on paying a fair price for the NAMA loans. Improving regulation and ensuring the mistake of 110% mortgages is not repeated is also part of the necessary reforms.

A key challenge lies in removing the incentive to rezone land for all the wrong reasons. Some Planning Authorities around the Country zoned enough land in the last few years to take care of growth for the next 60 years. iIn doing so they accelerated the bubble's expansion , and facilitated sprawl. It is now time to row back on those rezonings and capture the betterment that flows from rezoning decisions. In 2004 the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (Ninth Report, p143) endorsed Kenny's conclusions from thirty years previously and outlined four mechanisms for recouping betterment: development levies; planning gain; taxation (such as a site value tax) and compulsory acquisition for the public good. If NAMA is approved we'll be going well down the road to implementing the latter, but it was disappointing that the Commission on Taxation recommended an annual property tax rather than a site value tax. Don't get me wrong - I feel a shift away from the boom-time tax of stamp duty on property is long overdue, but taxing rezoned land (as well as property) would be a decent incentive to stop bad rezonings in the first place. However at this stage much of the damage is done, and we should be discouraging future inappropriate rezonings by placing an annual tax on undeveloped rezoned land.

An end to stamp duty on property transactions could encourage people to move to a home that's suitable for their needs, whether it be older persons down-sizing, or younger people avoiding a 70 mile commute by living closer to where they're working. You do need a decent lead-in period, particularly for people who have already forked out chunks of cash on stamp duty in recent years.

There is still an irrational belief amongst local authority members in the major parties that rezoning land will bring back the goose that laid the golden egg f in the years leading up to 2007. Removing the propensity to rezone would allow County Councils to concentrate on providing decent services. Neither George Lee nor Enda Kenny have sufficiently acknowledged the need to rein in the rezoning tendencies of their more maverick councillors, although both Noel Dempsey and his predecessor Michael Smith drew attention to bad planning while in office. Both the NAMA legislation and the Planning Bill that is under preparation can address this issue.

Carbon pricing is contentious. What we've been doing to the environment with carbon emissions up to now is similar to what Bernie Madoff did with his investors, and that's why we need to start picking up the tab. Carbon charging will also have its own teething pains, and I thought Oisín Coughlan from Friends of the Earth did a great job debating carbon taxes with that Daily Mail journalist on Pat Kenny yesterday. Eamon Timmins from Age Action is right in saying that vulnerable older people must be protected from higher fuel prices, and that's where providing cash for upgrading the insulation and heating systems of older peoples homes comes in. However I disagree with Gerry Mullins where he argues that a carbon tax on bus and coach diesel would be a 'greenwash'. Once you start lashing around exemptions, where do you stop? In any event, buses are streets ahead on fuel efficiency compared to cars, and a carbon levy will favour public transport, as well as greener cars.

Charging for water, as recommended by Frank Daly's Commission on Taxation will be a political hot potato over the months ahead. Our view has always been that people should receive a basic allowance, but that a charge should apply for excessive use. If you're filling a swimming pool, washing the car every week, or leaving a tap running then you should pay for it. It's crazy that there's absolutely no incentive to change a broken washer on a leaking tap if you're piped up to a municipal water supply. Some form of charging might allow us to avoid the proposal doing the rounds to pipe water from the Shannon all the way across Ireland to the east coast. Let's conserve water and use it wisely instead of building bigger pipes half-way across the country.

We're heading off for our annual think-in to Athlone for a few days before the new Dáil session, before a members' conference on Saturday. We've a meeting of the Parliamentary Party on Thursday, and meetings with our group of Councillors on Friday. All of these reports will figure in our deliberations. One things is certain, doing nothing is not an option. Let the sleigh-ride begin!