Inaugural Reflections

Filed Under Polemics & Politics on January 20, 2009 | 4 Comments

Given how historic a day today was, I’m hoping you’ll humour me and forgive a rare political post. Like millions of people all around the world I watched the inauguration live on the internet. Not TV, but the internet, a sign of things to come perhaps? Anyhow, that’s not really what I want to write about here. I just want to make three observations about today’s events from the perspective of an outsider. Or, to be more precise, from the point of view of a European gay agnostic.

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Most of the world’s attention is focused on Barack Obama today. I can certainly understand why, but I’ve been pre-occupied with something else today, proposition 8 in California. The proposition was to add an article to the Californian Constitution to revoke civil rights for gay people. It passed, not by much, but it passed. The Californian constitution now discriminates against gay people. In the US that’s not a first. But there is something very different about the vote on proposition 8, in CA gay people COULD marry. They HAD rights. They fought long and hard, but they had won the basic civil rights that regular people take for granted. And today, over half of the voters in California choose to revoke those rights, to take basic civil rights away from their fellow Californians, their fellow Americans and their fellow human beings. To make an effort to actively take away rights from your fellow human beings is a hell of a lot different to failing to grant rights in the first place, or even to taking steps to make it harder to grant them in future. Failing to move forwards is sad, but moving backwards is tragic.

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Every few years this old chestnut comes up for debate again. With particularly suspicious timing the debate on third level fees is back on the agenda again. What I can say for sure is that the system we have now is fundamentally flawed, and that change is badly needed. Re-introducing fees could either make things better or worse, depending on how it was done. It is certainly no silver bullet to just make everything better.

Lets start by looking at the system we have now. The government decide how much money a student’s tuition is worth, and pay the Universities depending on their registration numbers. There is a registration fee which the student has to pay which theoretically covers administration costs. The amount paid per undergraduate student is the same in all universities as it’s set by the government. None of this applies to post-graduate courses where the universities each set their own fees.

This may have worked well for a while, but some serious cracks are now showing themselves. At the root of the problems is that fact that the government is not paying the universities enough per student, so they’ve had to start making up the balance in other ways. All they can do is jack up the registration fee, and the fees for postgraduates, so that’s what they’ve done.

The registration fee started off as insignificant, I believe it was about £40 when I was in first year, perhaps a little more but certainly less than £100. It is now well over €800! All students pay it, regardless of means or whether or not they are in receipt of a grant. Before “free” third-level education students on grants didn’t have to worry about fees, now they have a huge “registration fee” to pay which causes real problems for the poorer segments of society, erecting a barrier to entry that wasn’t there before. Pretty ironic really, considering the whole point was to lower the barrier to entry! This is bad for the country as a whole, which is totally dependent on our education system. Our only natural resource is our educated work force, and the government in it’s ever-shorter-sightedness is jeopardising that.

The same goes for postgraduate fees. When I started the fees were about £1,250 or there-abouts. Now they are well over €6,000. The reasons are the same, because the government are not paying enough per undergraduate student, the universities have to get their money in other ways, and in this case postgraduate students are it! Many postgraduate students get their fees paid by funding agencies, but for those who don’t get that very scarce money are totally shafted. Again, badly harming our knowledge economy.

So, under the current system the universities are underfunded, the poorest students are forced to pay an extortionary “registration fee”, and postgraduate studies are prohibitively expensive for all but the very best at sitting exams. The system is clearly broken! A very persuasive argument can be made that it is wrong for the government to pay for the education of the sons and daughters of millionaires. Hence the argument for bringing back fees, but only for the very rich.

If this is done right it could work, but if it’s done wrong it won’t make any difference at all, or even make things worse! Lets start by looking at how it could be done badly. Fees never left, they are just currently paid by the government (who set the price), rather than by the parents. As long as the government are paying fees for anyone, they are hardly likely to surrender that control. The problem is the fee is too low, so changing who pays it won’t help the universities at all, it will just save the government money. There would be no extra money in the actual universities and the registration fee and the postgraduate fees would continue to rise. This is what I expect our incompetent government to try to. It’s an attractive idea to a government in panic over public expenditure. In the short-term it lets them save public money and claim a victory in aid of helping save the economy. The long-term results will be disastrous, but in the short term it will look good, and governments are insanely short-term thinkers unfortunately.

So how could it be done right? I see three things being needed:
1) The abolition of the registration fee
2) A dramatic increase in the amount universities get per-student
3) only high income families should have to pay fees
4) government expenditure on third level education should not be reduced in real terms, the money coming from the rich families should be EXTRA money for third level, money which is desperately needs!

I believe it’s important for our country that we have a strong education system. An investment in education is an investment in the very future of our economy and our nation. It is not a waste of money, and, like healthcare, not an area that should suffer cutbacks or be neglected. What really matters is that universities are properly funded, and that they are easily accessible to every young person in our society, regardless of the wealth of their parents. I don’t care how that goal is achieved, I just care that it is achieved!

Lets start with a word of warning, if you don’t want to hear any criticism of fundamentalist religion, skip this post. It will only upset you!

Anyway, I was reading this news article yesterday and it got me thinking. My first reaction was to laugh. The whole idea of people getting into a flap because a picture of a cute police dog was used on a police poster is hilarious. However, it got me thinking. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just another symptom of a bigger problem, the bastardisation of the concepts of tolerance and respect by right-wing religious groups. These groups interpret tolerance and respect to mean that everyone must do things their way.

It seems to be a common thread among the more fundamentalist branches of the major world religions to show a total and utter lack of any tolerance what so ever, while simultaneously demanding that the whole world “tolerate” and “respect” their beliefs. We must all respect their beliefs and refrain from anything they don’t like, while at the same time they refuse to tolerate anything they disagree with.

Although this particular news article was about Muslims, the problem is much more wide-spread. It could just as well have been about fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist Jews or indeed any fundamentalists. When you stop and think you see it all the time.

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Reflections on Lisbon

Filed Under Polemics & Politics on June 13, 2008 | 9 Comments

For those of you not up on European affairs, the Irish people voted yesterday not to ratify the European Reform Treaty, commonly known as the Lisbon Treaty. Since all EU nations have to ratify EU treaties for them to come into effect this is a big deal. 27 countries worked for eight years to get to this point and Ireland just rejected all their hard work and pain-staking negotiation. On reflection I should have realised that this referendum was always destined to fail in Ireland given our current state of affairs. Two simple facts doomed the treaty.

  1. It’s a long and complex document which is not designed to be read by un-qualified people. It’s an international treaty between 27 nation states that amends and compliments a handful of other treaties. Stuff like that gets complicated.
  2. The Irish people have no faith in their government or major political parties

The first point means that people have to form their opinions based on the advice of others. If they had faith in their government they would believe the government when they laid out the pros and cons. But the Irish people are very suspicious of their government and indeed all their major political parties. This made it easy for the No campaign to spread Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) by the lorry-load, which they did. In a situation like this a no vote is the expected outcome. “If you don’t know, vote no”.

[tags]Lisbon, Ireland, EU, Reform Treaty, NO![/tags]

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This evening I watched the episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches program entitled “In God’s Name”. It scared the hell out of me. When you see kids being brain-washed right in front of your eyes you worry for the future of our society. Surely this kind of brain-washing is in direct violation of those children’s human right to freedom of thought and belief? The intolerance and the hate being spread by Christian Fundamentalists in the name of a supposedly loving God terrifies me. Because they hide their message of hate behind a veil of religiosity they get away with far more than any other hate mongerers can. Hate in the name of love gets treated very differently to plain naked hate. Why should it be OK for a Christian organisation to promote racism? The actual views are no different to white supremacists or indeed neo-Nazis, it’s just the justification that’s different. Christians protesting against Mosques is tolerated, but just imagine the out-cry if Muslims started to protest the building of Churches! It’s OK to harass gay people at their events, but just imagine the out-cry if gays were to start protesting at Christian Churches handing out hate-mail and disrupting services! Because these people hate in the name of God they get away with more than any other hate mongers can.

[tags]fundamentalism, hate, racism, homophobia, God[/tags]

The reality is that those who have a strong faith in a particular god or gods will not be swayed from that belief. They will literally die to protect their faith. Whether we like it or not that is a fact borne out time and again throughout History. That’s why freedom of belief was included in the UN Charter of Human Rights. This level of faith is the same in all religions. This gives fundamentalists a stark choice, they can persue an agenda of tolerance, or of conflict with the ever looming threat of war. There is no other way.

You cannot force any one set of beliefs on an entire nation let along an entire world. If you try then you will be met with resistance every bit as strong as your oppression by people who believe they are right every bit as much as you do. If you do not respect the rights of others to hold their own beliefs then you are on the side of never-ending conflict and war. The only way to get a peaceful society is to have everyone agree to respect everyone’s human rights. You can’t have a peaceful and free society if any religion tries to force it’s beliefs on an everyone. That’s what fundamentalists are doing and that’s why they scare me so much.

Every time you see members of any faith attempting to force their views on an entire nation, remember that’s the road to oppression, conflict and war.

While I was on holidays in Belguim last Christmas I wrote a long essay on the state of Belgium and tried to give some insight into the on-going political crisis there. I concluded that Belgium would probably continue to exist but as a very loose federal state with Flanders having a lot of autonomy. I had been thinking in terms of just two options for Flanders, remain in some form of Belgium state, or go it alone as an independent state within the EU. It turns out there may be a third option which I hadn’t considered at all, become part of the Netherlands. In many ways it makes sense, Flanders and the Netherlands share a common language and they are also culturally very different. The biggest difference between them is religion with Flanders being predominantly Catholic and the Netherlands predominantly Protestant. However, judging by church attendances, religion doesn’t have a very prominent place in the hearts and minds of either the Flemish or the Dutch. Fifty years ago such a merger would have been un-thinkable, what about now?

[tags]Belgium, Flanders, Netherlands, politics[/tags]

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John Gruber linked to the image below on Twitter today (it’s from Der Spiegel). This one picture sums up the effect of US foreign policy under the Bush administration better than even the best polemic. I’ll stop talking and just leave you with the picture

An Isolated WG Bush

At long last after years of building pressure Bertie Ahern is to step down as the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) next month. I think it’s fair to say that he was hoisted up by his own petard to some extent. It was Bertie who set up the Tribunals and it was Bertie who told them to follow the money. I doubt he expected those instructions to lead to his own accounts and I doubt he wanted the public to get an insight into the way he operated them. It’s a fantastical tale involving literally bags of cash and multi-thousand-pound whip-rounds by friends who who just happen to be major business figures. He also conveniently didn’t have a bank account for many years, even while he was minister for finance, and when he did have bank accounts he didn’t seem to know much about what was happening in them. He’s been shown not to have been telling the truth by his secretary and it really was high time he stepped down. He should have done this ages ago. I expect the highest standards of ethics from my political leaders, and Bertie’s didn’t meet the mark. For him to stay on so long despite what the tribunals have been uncovering was damaging to Irish politics and sent out the complete wrong message. Personally I don’t care whether he actually committed any crimes, his carry-on fell far below what I expect from a minister. I won’t be shedding a tear for Bertie.

[tags]Politics, Ireland, Bertie Ahern[/tags]

The title of this article is a toast I make each year on Good Friday while enjoying an alcoholic beverage with some form of meat dish. Before continuing I think I need to give my non-Irish readers some background. In theory Ireland is a secular state. In reality it wasn’t for much of the last century when it was in fact a Catholic state in which the church wielded significant power and influence. Much of the church’s influence is gone but there are still a few glaring reminders of a more theocratic past. The law banning the sale of alcohol on Good Friday is one such out-of-place reminder. My own private little protest against this probably unconstitutional law is to toast to the death of Catholic Ireland each Good Friday.

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