Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Crap Tourist Sites

Now, I don't get much of a readership here: enough to keep me going but also the right amount to keep my ego in check. So I don't expect much from this. Anyway, inspired by mad Dan Cruikshank's Around the World in 80 Treasures, I was speculating about what a programme specifically on crap treasures would include. So I thought I might ask you to suggest some and see if we can get a curmudgeonly world tour going.

The only rules are that the treasures must have had some original intention other than modern tourism (so that's Disneyland out, unfortunately) and that they must have some claim to being a tourist draw (so that's your local mall out, unless it's Mall of America etc...). To get us started, I'll pick...

Blarney Castle, because it's everything that's awful about the Irish tourist industry.

And Stonehenge, because it's a bloody huge disappointment, because it's like a decoration on a roundabout with the road sweeping past and most gallingly because it's roped off so all you do is gape at it like a fool and then traipse (clock-bloody-wise only, mind) towards the gift shop. Ugh.

Anyway, if you can think of any let me know. If you can't I'll be suitably chastened for suggesting that you're a miserable git too!

Star Wars

Although I am not a fan of Star Wars, it being overblown, commercialised crap an all, I am a fan of the UK import of The Apprentice. Mainly because there's something luridly fascinating about the car-crash personalities and egos involved in the programme. What possesses these people to appear on these shows? Where does self-belief end and pathology begin? Is it really a pre-requisite to being hired in the business world that you laugh whenever the boss finds himself funny? All these questions... Anyway, I was delighted to see, via, that someone with waaay too much time on their hands has mingled Star Wars and the Apprentice together to make the seriously bizarre Sith Apprentice...

Friday, March 25, 2005

Noble in Reason

Well, it's been a busy old week. Hence the complete lack of attention to the blogging lark. For a start, I spent a night down in Limerick, attending a friend's inaugural lecture at the university there. Then back up to Dublin to do some work in the new bit of Trinity College's library. Then today to Landsdowne Road to watch Leinster beat Llanelli 31-25. And now back in the brother's house to get a much-needed online fix.

No real observations on the world this week anyway. I did note, partly in the light of the last month's work with Mel the revelations over the British government's WMD claims in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. This week, specifically, the heat has been on Lord Goldsmith, whose sort-of legal opinion gave Blair and co cover for the invasion.

As I'm sure anyone living in the UK is aware, the story of the week is the resignation letter of one Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who was deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office. Wilmshurst intimated in her letter, a key passage of which was censored but subsequently leaked, that Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general had changed his mind on the legality of the war. The story seems to be that Goldsmith thought that the war was illegal but after a trip to meet with White House lawyers in Washington, decided that it was legal after all (one possible line of discussion is suggested by Steve Bell here).

Apart from leaving Blair looking pretty bad in the 10 days before he dissolves parliament and announces the May 5th election, this sort of news, in theory at least, suggests that Blair, Bush and others should be prosecuted as war criminals (since the Iraq invasion, lacking a second UN resolution, was an act of 'criminal aggression,' as Wilmshurst put it).

Having spent some time reading up on the Hutton Inquiry, I'm increasingly sympathetic with the intelligence community and others and increasingly unsympathetic with their political masters. Wilmshurst seems like another person who refused to concede on principles in the name of (laudible or not) political imperatives. The run-up to the war in Iraq was characterised by Downing Street putting large sections of the intel community in the position where they either had to abandon their regard for intelligence analysis and for their positions as professionals or they had to bear enormous pressure to conform to the government's line.

Not that governments shouldn't have control over the intelligence services. The dilemma that people face is that it's impossible to control the assessments others make, to get the answer you want, and simultaneously to have them produce assessments that are in any sense reliable. This week's news proves that this counts just as much for lawyers as it does for intelligence officers.

We get the politicians we deserve and, in turn, they get the crises they deserve.

Monday, March 21, 2005


Interesting post over on Internet Commentator on democracy and mandates. I and others have a bit of a spat with him which (hopefully) suggests a couple of alternative views as to what precisely democracy entails.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Spirit of Bacchus

With the events of the St. Patrick's festival in mind, and having seen all the spectacular drunkeness here in Belfast on Thursday, I thought of my favourite account of the Day that was in it. Written by Honor Tracy, it recalls a St. Patrick's Day in Dublin in the late 1940s. I've pasted it in below.

Mind You, I've Said Nothing!: Forays in the Irish Republic, of which the Paddy's Day story is one chapter, was is a very very funny account of an Ireland that has passed. Almost. The book is not precisely, um, politically correct, but I fully recommend it. It's proof (if such a banal proof were ever needed) that some of the most affectionate and witty literature about Ireland has not been written by the Irish. Or, at least, it appeals to my perverse sense of humour (especially the bit at the end)...

Anyway, it's just over a five minute read and is well worth it, both as a marker for what's changed in the country and, more amusingly, for what's remained the same.
All Honour to St. Patrick

Once upon a time I chanced to be dining in a hotel in a small English town on St. Patrick's Day. A long trestle table had been set up down the middle of the restaurant and round it sat a company of jovial, red-faced, perspiring men; some wearing green paper hats, all with the shamrock in their button-hole. The solid part of the meal was over and the celebrants were settling piously down to the bottle and exercise of wit.

"Buckingham Palace? Is that a hotel or something?"

Howls of laughter greeted the quip. Emerald streamers darted hither and thither about the room, wavered and fell in one's plate. From a neighbouring bar came the lusty strains of "The Boys of Wexford" intermingling with those yet farther off of "The Wearing of the Green." Small parties of excited youths were ranging the streets outside, shouting and cheering. Now would come the sound of a sudden fierce altercation: now, again, the tinkle of falling, broken glass.

I observed that the lips of some one at our table were moving.

" What did you say?" I screamed.

" I said," he bawled, "what on earth must St. Patrick's Day be like in Dublin?"

Yes, to be sure. I remembered his reasonable inquiry as the day of Ireland's Saint came round again this year.

It began with a cold wet cheerless morning. The wind appeared to blow from all points of the compass at once, a trick of which Dublin winds have the secret. The sky was a grey feathery mass; the rain pattered down in little stinging freezing drops. From some of the public buildings dangled the gold, white and green flag of the Republic, limp and forlorn. The shops were closed, the streets nearly empty, the people at Mass.

At some moment in the morning a pageant of Irish industry began gradually to assemble in St. Stephens Green. Lorries advertising this and that Irish product or activity were slowly easing themselves into their places, causing disruption to the traffic. Sometimes it was a little hard to grasp the idea behind the displays they mounted; for example, a Board na Mona (Turf Board) lorry was transformed into a simple hencoop, protected by wire netting and decorated with flowers in which half a dozen hens ran peevishly up and down. Between these ruffled birds and the highly interesting and important work of the Board it was difficult to see a connexion. Other lorries drew attention to the excellence of certain English goods, toothpaste and cigarettes and so on, of which the makers had opened factories in Ireland and which therefore at a pinch could be included. The truly native products of whiskey and stout were also represented, drawing a faint cheer from the lookers-on.
Later on the newspapers would remark with satisfaction on the great progress made by Irish industry since the founding of the State.

The Anti-Partition League had put its oar in, as was to be expected, and their tableaux vivants struck a welcome note of fantasy in the prosaic turn-out. One of these had an Orange-man in bowler hat and sash vainly trying to make his way across a barrier to a tall handsome young man in green while a fat and truculent John Bull prevented him. Another showed Erin in stately green robes and golden crown plucking at the strings of a harp and mourning her six lost counties, which sat huddled together in front of her sniffing loudly and wiping their noses on the backs of their hands. The figure of Robert Emmett stood below a gallows fearlessly confronting a judge in scarlet robes; a placard quoted him to the effect that his epitaph was never to be written until Ireland took her place among the nations of the world and demanded: WHEN?

The public received these inflammatory gestures with calm, if not indifference. Even the children showed no concern for the plight of Robert Emmett but stared glumly in front of them as if their thoughts were elsewhere. Their English contemporaries, faced with a spectacle of the kind would have given delighted cries of "Go on! string 'im up! get on wiv it !" or other such signs of childish interest; but these little souls were speechless and impassive as orienta1s. A man pushed by with several small girls dressed in blue coats and hats and white socks, with their pigtails tied up in bright red ribbon. On such a day the colour scheme could hardly have been an accident, must surely have been intended as a demonstration, the work of some implacable diehard, but nobody minded.

For that matter, who in Ireland does mind about such things? The Anti-Partition League is always ready with its peep-shows, its leaflets and posters, its denunciatory references to "police states" and "occupied territories." Politicians, without a single constructive idea in their noodles except for their own welfare, can lash a crowd to fury by harping on the injustice of the Border. Americans of Irish descent are fond of raising an easy cheer in the same way and can always depend on space in the newspapers for it: to read some of these newspapers, indeed, you would think the disunity of Ireland was one of Washington's larger worries. Some lone crusader may announce his intention of recruiting and training a private army to invade and conquer the North. Foreigners are button-holed in private conversation and Ireland's case, suitably distorted, is put to them with an intensity of emotion that carries them away: returning home they gravely report that on this issue at
least all shades of opinion are in agreement.

There is, however, a gulf between public attitudes and private opinion in Ireland; it is the land of Double Think and Double Speak. Should anyone wish to test the truth of this he need only sit back and quietly watch what is done, ignoring all that is said. It will gradually come to his notice that when all the breast-beating and tub-thumping are over, the sobs hushed and the tears dried, the Irish very coldly and shrewdly do whatever seems to them wise and convenient. They are as canny a race of men as ever walked the earth.

There is another side of this question which ought not to be forgotten. The Border is the last of Ireland's grievances, real and fancied. The mind takes fright at the thought of what will happen when it is gone. From that day on the national pastime of railing at England will have to be given up. A wit has suggested that, on the contrary, then will be the moment to begin work on the most grievous injustice of all – namely, that the sun rises just a little earlier there than here; and on the face of it the problem, being insoluble, seems wonderfully adapted to Irish needs. But too strong a protest against the arrangement might be condemned in certain quarters as contrary to faith and morals. It might be held, after deliberation in conclave, that responsibility for it did not entirely lie with the English. The quarters alluded to have not always been as sensitive to the propriety of nationalist claims as they apparently are to-day; they might once again come heavily down on the side of the established order.

For this reason and others the patriots should be in no hurry to sweep the partition away. There is no urgent need in their soul for the practical benefits of such a move to compare with the urgent need of feeling themselves wronged and of burning John Bull in effigy. They are constantly telling us how ill-adapted they are to this world, how one of their feet only is on the earth and the other in heaven, how alien, helpless and strange they feel in this life, how eagerly they look forward to that beyond the grave. On the evidence it looks as if they might be mistaken: and in any case there is no guarantee whatever that people unable to adapt themselves to this world will not prove an intolerable nuisance in the next one too: in fact, we may reasonably assume that they will. But that is their story and they are holding to it and it hardly squares with the frequent and impassioned demands for the "return" of the Belfast industries.

From their carryings on it might be suspected that the patriots feel this themselves. If the division of Ireland is an injustice, as they say, the task before them is surely to do away with it without creating another. They must induce the people of the North to join them of their own free will. They must persuade these fanatical Protestants that they would really be happier under a regime over which the Church of Rome has an absolute control. They must bring these hardheaded, hard-working, tax-paying, civically-minded creatures to believe that the gay anarchy of the South would suit them very much better. Nothing is impossible, but a programme of this kind would seem to call for an immense and sustained effort. It is so much jollier to strike attitudes and so much more appropriate to the Celtic genius. And hence on every public occasion there are these elaborate charades, staged in the happy confidence that nothing will come of them.

The pipers in their green and saffron kilts now set up a horrid wail, like the wail of a hundred massed banshees, and the procession jogged slowly off in the rain. It took just twenty minutes to pass a given point and it was the highlight of the day. Nothing remained but hurling and football matches in the afternoon and the Dog Show at Ballsbridge. Everything was closed out of respect for the Saint, shops, pubs, places of entertainment. People walked drearily through the wet streets with dull Sunday faces, longing for all to be over. My companion of that evening years ago in England would have found the contrast an instructive one. Could these limp Dubliners have been transferred by magic to Broadway, for example, they too would surely have capered and cut up and cracked skulls in the blithe old tradition. With all the Jews and Italians and Germans looking on they would have become exuberantly and aggressively Irish. There would then have been alien presences, even perhaps hostile ones, against which to react and before which to show off. But alas! what is the point of being Irish when every one else is Irish too?

Ennui, which is always just round the corner in Ireland, now openly stalked abroad. But the minutes and hours of the long grey day crept by and brought steadily nearer the hope of release. The brief space of permitted drinking in the hotels loomed closer and closer. Those who had been wise enough to lay in a provision against the saintly drought were already benefiting by their foresight. The spirit of Bacchus stirred uneasily in its sleep.

Some of us went down to the Dolphin in a band, hoping to shake off a little the despondencies of the fiesta. Happy scenes of revelry met the eye the moment we passed within. Unsteady figures cannoned into us, apologizing at once with a fine florid courtesy and sweeping exaggerated bows as we moved towards the Grill. Our path was blocked for a moment or two by a man whom we instantly recognized as one of Dublin's rationalist free-thinkers. He had taken exception to what he described as the "Protestant kind of laugh" of another guest and was offering to fight it out then and there. Laying a hand on one of our shoulders he appealed to us all to recognize the justice of his complaint. His adversary stood beside him and laughed repeatedly, an inane high-pitched laugh in which for the life of us we could detect no sectarian flavour. We passed hurriedly on, knowing that we stood near the brink of something dark and strange.

We made our way through the medley as best we could and sat down at a table. Our neighbour was a plethoric gentleman who sat, head bowed in hands, in front of a double whiskey, fast asleep. Another double whiskey stood at the place opposite him with no one apparently there to drink it. lt was a sight of pathos, calling to mind those stories of broken-hearted creatures who celebrate the anniversary of some dear lost one by eating in solitude a dinner served for two. Perhaps some private tragedy was similarly being enacted now? was that libation poured to the memory of some dead hero of the Irish Resistance? or simply one who had fallen victim to the rigours of an earlier St. Patrick's Day? But we looked again and saw that here was no phantom drinker but a man of flesh and blood. It was just that he was kneeling down, his legs under the table, his head on the seat of the chair, unconscious. The waiters were amused and tolerant in the delightful way of their land. For as long as he needed it the amnestied diner could depend on their support and protection. Presently he gurgled and, struggling to rise, rolled over and lay twitching at our feet. The waiters kindly lifted him up and propped him in his chair, whereupon, to their hilarity, he vanished under the table once more.

“Down the well again!"

“He's gone to look for his boots!"

And there he lay unheeded yet safe through the evening or, for all we knew, until the cool light of another day broke into the empty room. And the little incident stayed in our minds as a felicitous rounding-off to the whole occasion. Mass in the morning, vacuity through the day, oblivion at night: religion, inertia, alcohol: Ireland's Saint had once more been honoured in the appropriate style. And of the three leaves of the Irish shamrock the kindest and best is alcohol. From all terrors of life and death, from goblins, leprechauns and bishops, from sudden intimations of reality, dear Booze, set us for a moment free! so perhaps the Invocation in the preamble to the Constitution might be amended.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Culture Vulture

Well, it's Friday again and, though I'm probably going to spend most of the weekend in work, I am getting into a terribly cultural mood. So, I must take a couple of hours off to check out Rita Duffy's exhibition at the Ulster Museum. I have a feeling I won't like it, but I'll give it my best shot. Anyway, aesthetic pleasure is surely not the only useful response one should have, is it?

I'm also looking forward to being in Dublin for Easter when I'll make my periodical pilgrimage to the Gallery of Photography. And when I return, I'm looking forward to the British Professional Photography Awards exhibition in the Waterfront from the end of March.

The photograph, by the way, is of the Arbetets Museum in Norrköping, Sweden. It suggests, accurately I suspect, that my love of galleries has as much to do with the architecture and aesthetic of the space framing the exhibits as it has to do with the exhibits themselves.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Roosevelt Island Tram

An amazing photo over on

Hebredise the Island

Well that time of year has hit us again: when Irish people everywhere take the opportunity to celebrate our Irish-American heritage. Happy St. Patrick's Day! And, if you are reading Stateside, rest assured, as per tradition, it's raining, cold and miserable!

I for one am spending the day in the office, trying to keep my mind on the paper myself and Mel have to finish this weekend (a discussion of ethical dilemmas in public administration, drawing heavily from the Hutton Inquiry), and reading Tom Garvin's (pretty interesting so far) Preventing The Future: Why Ireland Was So Poor for So Long.

Update: Mel has posted some more serious reflections on Irish America. Paul expresses some concerns about the day. Young Irelander is planning to murder his liver. And Andrew McCann sticks to pulling hair and breaking the heads of dolls. It must be love!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Religion in US Schools

Two interesting posts on Religion in American schools. Leiter Reports posts a call for people to campaign against the encroachment of religion in Texan the school system. In a more reflective vein, Peter Levine sets out his reflections on this issue. Both are worth reading, though Peter's post is of more relevance to those of us on this side of the Atlantic, I suppose.

Or rather, I hope.

Childcare Costs in Ireland

Two interesting reflections, from Laura and Caoimhe, on childcare costs in Ireland.

Prattle of the Boyne

The problem with Irish byelections is that, especially with their typically low turnout, they just don't provide enough data for us to make sound judgements from. Given this, general conclusions that anyone reaches about events in Meath last weekend should be taken with a pinch of salt. With this in mind, let's soldier on. Um, so to speak...

The party to watch in Meath, of course, was Sinn Féin. They were justifiably happy with the increase in their share of the first preference vote from 9.43% in 2002 to 12.25% last weekend.1 In 2002 they polled 6,042 votes on a turnout of 60% and this year they polled 6,087 votes on a turnout of 40%, which is pretty good by anyone's standards. But that doesn't mean that the poll was all good news for SF. The result, from what we can guess from the data, should also give them pause for thought.

First, it's important to regard the result in the context of what happened to Fíanna Fáil's vote, both in Meath and in Kildare. Both polls saw a significant drop in the government party's vote: a fall of 12.5% in Meath and 18.71% in Kildare. From this we can guess that the byelection was not a predictor of what will happen at the next general election.

The 12.25% that the Shinners polled refers to their first preferences. So, the first question we should ask when we examine their vote is 'are SF voters more motivated to vote relative to voters for other parties?' or 'were they more likely to vote this weekend than other voters?' Well, I don't know. My guess is that some significant porportion of the votes cast on Friday were new votes: good news for SF.

On the other hand, given the events of the post-Christmas period, and the current crisis in the Republican movement, it would not be unreasonable to think (in the context of the votes cast) that the percentage increase in the vote significantly over-estimates the porportion of people in the constituency who might vote SF in a higher-turnout election. I other words, a 3% rise in the vote is not a 3% rise in the number of people willing to give SF their first preferences.

Second, it's important to examine the transfers. After all, if SF wants to make gains across Ireland, they will need to attract transfers from other parties. Now, as I said, the data is upset by the low turnout. Still, in the two sets of transfers (table below), SF was attracting roughly 1/3 of the votes that other parties attracted. This is a significant problem for them.

Fewer transfers equals fewer seats, unless the first preference vote is high enough to put the candidate within spitting distance of the quota and I doubt SF are in that position.

In other words, I think the lesson of the weekend is that SF have a loyal and highly motivated, and perhaps growing base, but the perception that they are associated with the IRA, that they are the IRA, means that people won't transfer to them. Until this perception goes, SF will be a minor player in Irish politics.

1 The single transferable vote system is explained more or less succinctly here.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Quick EU Roundup

Via Dead Men Left, an interesting leftie spin on issues surrounding the British vote on the Constitution for Europe (drawn from George Monbiot's article in last week's Guardian).

Also, Margot Wallström, the Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication, with some personal reflections on her visit to Ireland last week.

Creative Rackett

What's the world coming to? It seems, via Irish Eagle, that Paul Muldoon, poet extraordinaire (and author of the difficult but interesting To Ireland, I, has set up a band (NYT, so subs required)...

Bicentennial Ham

Via Gerry O'Sullivan, I see a marvellously scathing restaurant review by Jay Ranier in yesterday's Observer. Like Gerry, I have a certain prediliction for bad reviews: they're so much more fun than boring old good ones. My favourite review ever, in this sadistic vein, was Peter Bradshaw's marvellous piece in the Guardian some years ago, on Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man. Great stuff!!

Brooklyn Naval Gazing

I notice that two bloggers I keep an eye on, Lex and callalillie (I came across them last year when reading their blogs on the NYC Marathon), have set up a web research project/quasi-blog, developing an information base on the Brooklyn Naval Yard (to read about the project, see here). It all seems to be fairly new so far but I find it fascinating nonetheless.

I suppose my primary interest in the site is that it sits on the net's blurred boundary between the public and the private. Blogging is a strange phenomenon on this front, with people purposefully setting out to span the public and the private, often in creative, interesting (and sometimes downright sinister!) ways.

The Officers' Row project, though not quite blogging, obviously reflects the personal interests (as some of the older posts suggest) of the two authors, but they have developed those interests as, well, an exercise in authorship. It's certainly a public site, and is designed around a search for information, but at the same time it's theirs.

On top of that it's an interesting exercise in using the net as a tool in building local histories (take a glance at some of the links in their sidebar). These sites are more than trawls for information, given that they can be updated when needs be. So they function in ways different to private databases or books. What those ways might be in general remains to be seen, but I suspect that they are will highlight the role of the net as a public space.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it all!!

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Terror Laws in Other Countries

I see that the Pub Philosopher has a post asking how other countries have dealt with terror suspects. He asks whether:

...they allow intelligence evidence in courts? If so did it blow apart their intelligence services? If not, how do they deal with terrorists? Maybe it's easier to get a conviction in other countries. Maybe their less adversarial systems give less scope for weasel lawyers to get criminals off the hook.

This brings to mind an article entitled 'September 11, Anti-Terror Laws and Civil Liberties: Britain, France and Germany Compared,' by Dirk Haubrich in the September 2002 issue of Government and Opposition (subs required, but there's an abstract (and access if you have an institutional affiliation) here). Haubrich's conclusion is that various circumstances made the British government far more able to introduce tough legislation than the French and German governments were. I've lifted a table of the various post-9/11 measures from his piece...

He writes:
In France and Germany parliamentary sovereignty is much more constrained, as written constitutions had been introduced in 1958 and 1949 respectively. Any legislation approved of by the parliaments must conform to that constitution. To ascertain whether this is so, the law can at its formative stage be referred to the Constitutional Council (in France) or, at the judicial review stage, to the Constitutional Court (in Germany). Most of the civil rights in Germany are part of the first twenty articles of the constitution that cannot be altered by parliament. They are not only negative in character but are explicitly stated so to promote liberties such as the free press and free speech. They may, as such, be a basis for finding legislation to be unconstitutional and may also be a ground for requiring action from the state. In the French case, civil rights are stated in the preamble as well as the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which are both part of the constitution. In addition, the ECHR has acquired a status superior to ordinary French statutes, further improving the protection of civil liberties. The possibility of amendments to the written constitution is provided for, too, and subject to a majority in both houses, of three-fifths in France and two-thirds in Germany. Neither country, however, decided to initiate them when the anti-terror laws were implemented. Unlike Britain, the constitutional provisions available to declare a ‘state of emergency’ or ‘state of defence’ were not invoked either.

The British principle of parliamentary sovereignty, then, and the flexibility it offers to adjust to changing political realities, seem to come at a high price. Interventionism of the British government is the order of the day if the circumstances are ‘right’. For not only are there no formalized constitutional checks to executive power in British politics, but the usual political checks to prevent the government from enacting harsh legislation, intangible as they are already, were inactivated also. In the widespread atmosphere of fear about further attacks, the normal sense of self-restraint was not, and did not have to be, exercised by the executive. The same reason also greatly diminished the bargaining power of pressure groups concerned with civil liberties, usually another political checkpoint for excessive legislation. Given the second landslide victory for Labour earlier that year, the duty to respect the opposition party was also less called for than hoped for. The growing trend of marginalization of the government’s own backbench politicians and the decreasing influence of the House of Commons over the executive generally further undermined any rudimentary willingness that might have existed inside Britain’s political institutions to dissent from the executive’s viewpoint. Finally, the next election would take place far enough in the future to counter fears that voters might turn the government out over the laws introduced.

In conclusion we suggest that: the truly exceptional combination of public fear and perceived threat; Britain’s long experience with terrorism (and the legislative measures to contain it); time pressure; a constrained judiciary; a weak opposition; a recent victorious election and irresolute interest groups — all these factors enabled the executive to bypass the unwritten checks and balances of British governance and to add yet another entry to Britain’s already extensive list of liberty-retrenching laws. That Labour politicians with liberal credentials should advocate such measures demonstrates the fragile position of civil liberties in Britain when faced with claims of terrorist threats.

I'm think recent events in Parliament fit in with Haubrich's thesis: the compromises reached were pretty cosmetic and the legislation is sufficiently draconian that I harumph and eject a few "quite right"s when Michael Howard speaks on the issue (and I'm a good twenty years too young to be doing that!). I suppose the substantive point is that parliament is no protection from the whipping up of a bit of fear. What Britain needs is a written constitution, so that our rights are treated as something more than privileges granted by the home secretary.

Aw Crap...

I thought the Belfast Spring had sprung...

How wrong I was!!!

Giving it All Away

I observe this morning that Mel (in paragraph four) has somewhat given the game away on our current project. It's looking pretty interesting alright, but I just hope he hasn't oversold!

Mel writes that
this has also been the week when friend Ciaran and I have been working to complete a paper on ethics and accountability for the upcoming ASPA meeting in Milwaukee. This is turning out to be a very interesting paper -- perhaps more interesting than we originally intended. Among other things, we will challenge the primary focus of much of the study of administrative ethics in public administration. While interesting and occasionally brilliant, most of the work in this area over the past 30 years can be regarded as "metaphysical speculation" -- or, in my terms, the search for the holy Grail of a moral theory for public administration to adopt and follow. As it is presently developing (at this very moment), our paper posits solutions to moral and ethical dilemmas as the central concern of administrative ethics, those posing an interesting challenge to the current mainstream literature in the field. It will be interesting to see whether anybody pays attention....

I suppose this is always the problem with projects like this: you can write all you like, but if you're too far beyond the field, nobody will quite know what to do with your work. Still, we'll soldier on. I think we have something interesting to say, which is good enough for me!

Certainly one thing about work with Mel is that it has provided an interesting introduction to co-authoring. A look at his publications list and his conference papers certainly highlights the fact that Mel is a past-master at it, but it is all a little new to me (though I have published with others in the last year too). But, as it turns out, I like this activity. It is fun to work with someone else, avoiding the pitfalls of writing alone (namely, agonising blindly over each little thing). When you write with someone else, they are always there to reassure you that you are on the right track or, indeed, to argue with as to what precisely the right track is. And of course they are available to remind you of impending deadlines!

But it's also interesting and challenging to learn how to compromise with someone and to defer to their greater expertise on matters (as they should be happy to do with you). I suppose this is why I enjoy working with Mel so much. We're the perfect academic couple: similar interests but from different perspectives, so we pursue our goals together without stepping on each other's intellectual predilictions too much.

And, lastly, since Mel is walking around like Quasimodo, I'm definitely the handsome one in the relationship!!!!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Cruel and Unusual

A rather bizarre article by Robert Weisberg, a professor of law at Stanford, in today's New York Times (registration required, I'm afraid). Writing on the US Supreme Court's ruling banning the executions of people who committed crimes as juveniles, Weisberg takes issue (siding with Justice Antonin Scalia) with the idea that a court can employ moral reasoning in order to make judgements. Weisberg writes that
This strategy provokes the (again perfectly reasonable) complaint that unelected jurists are now acting like pollsters, assessing the public's moral values. Or, worse, they are becoming arbiters of moral value themselves.

His implication is that the Supreme Court has no business engaging in "the cruel and unusual task of assessing America's evolving standards of decency."

This strikes me as being a little strange. The task at hand was to decide whether or not the execution of juveniles constituted a 'cruel and unusual punishment.' How, then, could a court not engage in moral reasoning over the question?

Weisberg's problem seems to be rooted in the fact that the majority justices made reference to international standards and other extra-constitutional sources in arriving at their ruling. But it's patently obvious that the US Constitution, that any constitution, cannot distinguish between acts that are cruel and unusual and those that are not.

Given this, if a Justice rules that act x is not cruel and unusual, he or she is still making a moral judgment. Or, if she or he claims that it is not their job to rule on such matters, then they are reneging on their obligation to interpret constitutional law. Whatever way you look at it, judgements without moral reasoning are impossible.

Or am I missing something?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Second-Degree Blogging

Three completely different posts that catch my beady eye this morning...

N.Irish Magyar bemoans the dropping of West Belfast from the 2005 marathon route. I don't quite agree with Paul on this - I think that a flatter route sounds lovely thank you very much - but there you go. Still, I am interested in some of the debates on this (e.g. see Slugger) which suggest that something like the Marathon should, for reasons of fairness, visit each of Belfast's main neighbourhoods. Or, as Paul suggests, that it gives people a good tour of the city (which, as a jogger, I suppose I should admit makes some sense to me: jogging outdoors is a great way to get to know a place: I'm an expert on South Belfast's geography and there are few things more satisfying than jogging along the Lagan from the meadows into the Waterfront on a sunny (not too warm!) day).


Via Victor on Political Arguments, a new article on Critical Theory in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I've had a quick look and it's pretty good.

...and finally...

YI raises the issue of a British vote on a United Ireland, which he rejects on the grounds that "I couldn't support a referendum that allowed a foreign nation the final say on an issue that affects my nation" (is it just me, or does this sound strangely familiar???). Actually, I find the idea of giving all the people I met in the South of England the opportunity to tell the Irish to fark orf highly amusing. I plan to suggest this to the next person who holds a strong Ulster-is-British-and-nothing-else line with me. I'm kind of sympathetic to them in some senses, but I wonder what the response would be if I said that, in that case, all British people should have a say in NI's future!

Smear Goggles

John Holbo has an interesting post over on Crooked Timber, on Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America. The post is interesting in itself, but I'm especially struck by the second half, where Holbo outlines the phenomenon of the 'smear goggles,' where a person opts for "a tactical deployment of stupidity, shutting down inconvenient conversations," by choosing not to tell the difference between a moderate and an extremist.

I suppose that NI is rife with this, where people just wait for the opportunity to have their suspicion that everyone on d'other side is a nutcase and a bigot. Mary McAleese anyone? (And that can be interpreted in at least a couple of ways!) Of course, as a fervent reader of blogs I realise that we're in the monological moralising business, not that of politics per se, but still, like whataboutery, this sort of thing all terribly unpleasant and not particularly helpful.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

EU Constitution Blog

I meant to say a few weeks ago: I came across an excellent information blog on the ratification process for the European Constitutional Treaty. Unsurprisingly, I've found the stuff on Ireland most interesting.

Rushdie and Islamism

Via the Political Theory Daily Review an article on Salman Rushdie and the secular West's relationship with Islam. It over-states the case a bit, but does reflect stuff I've thought about for a long time: especially in terms of the role of The Satanic Verses in constructing elements of a global Islamist polity (by which I mean a politically active community (in the widest sense), not the Ummah).

Monday, March 07, 2005

Why Prefer Dublin to Lagos?

As a bit of a follow-up to my previous post, there was an article in Saturday's Guardian about Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. Nigeria is, by quite a distance, the most significant source country for immigration into Ireland (pdf). The Guardian's article does provide a timely reminder of what precisely is pushing people to show up in Ireland. It's a safe bet that it's got very little to do with the attractions of the €19.10 they receive a week (and being banned from working) while their claims are being processed. As this report (there's a report on the report here) suggests, push factors are a far greater determinant of migration than pull factors.

Anyway, even if immigrants aren't coming from the poorest sections of society (with the exception of migration from war, this is very rarely the case), the Guardian article does add to the idea that it would be quite reasonable for people in countries like Nigeria to try and make a better life for themselves elsewhere.

I suppose I should add that this claim doesn't contradict the claim in the previous post, which was that asylum systems are designed around the untenable assumption that the claims of each individual applicant can be verified as true or not-true. My point here is that, in general, push factors outweigh pull factors in determining migration.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Mick Fealty on SF

I expect that most people who visit here also read Slugger, but in case you haven't seen it, Mick has a very astute piece on Sinn Féin support here. Well worth the read.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Bogus or Genuine? How Can We Tell?

Young Irelander has posted a couple of times on asylum seeking in the last few days. I took him up on some of his sentiments in the comments thread to his latest, more substantial, post on the matter. We rowed about facts of the matter there, but there are other things that fascinate me about the asylum system, given the general acknowledgement that even people who are anti-asylum seekers make, which is that people in rich countries like Ireland have duties towards people from troubled backgrounds (though we might differ as to what sort of background constitutes a 'troubled' one). In other words, people don't tend to have a problem with asylum systems per se. Rather, they have a problem with people who are not genuine in their claims to asylum. Which leaves us with the thorny question: how does one distinguish between genuine and non-genuine or 'bogus' claims?

Asylum systems are rooted in the assumption that the state can verify the status of each individual asylum seeker. Separating the wheat from the chaff is the modus operandi of the system: genuine asylum seekers, who are presumed to merit our moral attention, are given leave to remain and 'bogus' ones, aka economic migrants, who are not meritorious, are booted out.

It is this effort that leads to asylum systems being slow and inefficient: the state's agents have to interview each individual in order to classify them as genuine or bogus.

My suspicion is that this system relies on an assumed knowledge-gaining capacity that the state just cannot have. We just don't know for sure who's genuine and who's not: people can lie, or people who are trying to tell the truth can be scared into not presenting their case properly. Interviews are pretty blunt instruments for getting at the truth. Apart from their expense and inefficiency, they are riven with moral hazards, placing enormous power in the hands of immigration officials.

Since motives for migrating are only known to the individual concerned (and others who are not accessible to the state's knowledge-building systems), the state cannot build an accurate (by which I mean 'beyond reasonable doubt) picture of what's going on. So, we are left with the employment of proxies, such as the British state's 'designated states' system, whereby people from some source countries have their asylum claims rejected automatically. Which doesn't seem like a particularly good way to go about streamlining a system, no more than assuming that everyone from a warzone has arrived because they're from a warzone.

So I suppose this raises some questions. First, how many times individuals can be subject to incorrect decisions (genuine asylum seekers booted out and bogus ones allowed leave to remain) before we conclude that the system is illegitimate. Second, if we conclude that, how are we to fulfil our generally acknowledged duties towards refugees?

I haven't come up with answers, even though I'm supposed to be writing this up as an article.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


I've returned to the sweet air of Northern liberty, away from the smoke-free fug of popery, Guinness and general paddywhakery. Which is, um, nice.

Anyway, I brought back up a mug that the brother gave me (a sort of astutely-targeted belated Christmas/Birthday present). Ladies and Gentlemen: I present the Pessimist's Mug!