USC (17 Days To Election)

Ok, let’s talk tax. More specifically, let’s talk USC, which has already become a significant talking point in the course of this election.

I had a negative experience with USC very recently, which has made the tax’s existence a prescient thing for me. Midway through 2015 I was advised by my primary employer’s financial office to sign up to pay USC even though I wasn’t earning enough on a weekly basis to be eligible for it. I was advised because they estimated I would breach the threshold, calculated on a yearly basis, and that the entirety of my owed USC for a year would be taken out in one swoop.

I duly signed up, and thought as little about it as I could. No one likes seeing money taken out of their payslip after all. But then just a few weeks ago, the same financial office advised me that I had actually come in under the threshold, and so could claim the entirety of my USC back. I won’t say how much, but it was a sizable sum to say the least.

Happy days. Until it emerged that the only reason I appeared to be under the threshold was because my other employer – the one who went out of business – had left it to the last possible minute to give my pay and tax details to the Revenue service, for whatever reason. So, I was actually over the threshold, and entitled to nothing.

So, I wasn’t screwed over – legally speaking – but I still felt robbed, in that irrational way. I’m not earning enough that such an outcome doesn’t smart a little. And then an election was called, and everyone was suddenly talking about USC as well. Let’s go through some of the party statements on USC, and see how they line up to me.

To be clear, I am not in favour of abolishing USC, at least not without it being replaced by something else. I believe there have been rumblings about this, with PRSI to expand in scope, but this isn’t being talked about as much. While an emergency tax, the emergency isn’t over, and the Irish finances couldn’t handle the sudden drop in revenue if USC was done away with overnight. My problem is with the levels that USC is implemented on people, and the continuing discrepancy between tax revenue taken by the state and money pumped into government services.

It isn’t all that hard to find the parties’ opinions on USC. Indeed, this RTE piece is essentially a quick summation for several of them, FG, FF and the Soc Dems. Fine Gael want the charge gone, apparently, even though they acknowledge the hole it will leave. And, as others point out, USC can’t, and won’t, be eliminated in one fell swoop. This is a good thing, but be wary of candidates leaving that bit of information out. Over the course of the next government, USC could be phased out, and that wouldn’t be too bad, but only in line with increased taxation from other avenues.

Multiple parties want to retain USC, but to put a cap on incomes under which it will not be collected. Fianna Fail, in the above link, say 80K. Labour are saying 72K. AAA-PBP, in that leaflet I got the other day, are saying 70K. Sinn Fein say on their website that they will remove those on minimum wage from having to pay the tax. It’s a wonder it’s even an issue at all really…

Fianna Fail are even, shock horror for them, moving towards something curiously like a wealth tax, suggesting that the USC could be retained, or enlarged, for those on the larger incomes, something the harder left has been talking about forever. I certainly believe that people under-employed should not be asked to pay USC – I’m one of them, but so be it – but 70K seems a bit high of a cut-off to me, even for a household. Regardless, I don’t trust a word Fianna Fail says as such issues, and AAA-PBP won’t ever be in a position to implement such an idea.

It’s the Social Democrats, and the Greens to a lesser extent, who are the ones banging the drum in the completely opposite direction, in line with their Scandinavian style economic plan. There’s something brutally admirable in the way the Soc Dems refuse to play the tax cut game, but the question with them is their ability to actually make good on their promises, likely to only have three TD’s in the Dail, that will probably not even be in government (and if they are, with serious compromises). They are playing a long game of course. I’m totally on-board with maintaining the tax regime as it is, but only if it means services are improved. Right now, I don’t feel like that is the case, and a party that could prove to me they would make it the case would be very tempting.

Renua, if you care, think USC and everything should be replaced by their flat tax of 23% – which will leave me worse off, by the way – and also suggest that within the current tax system, USC should be abolished for the self-employed earning 100’000 or more. If there’s a party out there further away from appealing to me that is also in the Dail, I haven’t encountered them yet.

In the end, looking at tax policies is a depressing, confusing exercise, where the strength of stated policies is in a constant balancing act with expectations that they actually be carried out. For me, I distrust Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail. I have little time for Sinn Fein or AAA-PBP’s economics. The Greens are irrelevant, and Renua are abhorrent. That leaves the Soc Dems, whose refreshingly honest appraisal, and warnings that slashing taxes leads to dangerous boomtime situations, is attractive to me. If you improve services and lower the cost of living, as the Soc Dems want to do, I’ll happily pay my tax and my charges without complaint. But I fear I am an exception in a country obsessed with the money going into our pockets over every other consideration.

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Firefly: The Magnificent Nine In “Heart Of Gold”

INARA: I’m glad you were with her. Her last night. I am.

MAL: Yeah, well, I ain’t. Hell, I wish I’d never met her. Then I wouldn’t’ve failed her.

CHRIS: The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.

There are few films in the history of cinema that can claim to have had as big an impact as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and the 1960 western adaptation of it, The Magnificent SevenSeven Samurai was one of the first films to show a group of disparate and varied characters coming together to achieve a common goal, as well as a host of other minor narrative techniques that have become commonplace since then. The Magnificent Seven might actually be more famous in the popular consciousness than Seven Samurai, for a lot of reasons, and showcases much of the same, and I hope I may be forgiven for focusing more on John Sturges’ film than Kurosawa’s. Since its release, it has been the inspiration for a large amount of stories that take elements wholesale from it, in pieces that range from rip-off to flattery.

And of course, science-fiction is no exception. Show me any long running science-fiction franchise, series or film anthology, and odds are you will find some kind of reference to The Magnificent Seven in it. For Firefly, that moment is “Heart Of Gold”. For a sci-fi western, it was absolutely inevitable that an episode like this would be created, and I daresay we would have seen the basic structure again a few times if the series had been allowed to continue.

The main similarities are obvious. You have a group of vulnerable people, beset by evil men, incapable of defending themselves alone. They seek help from independent contractors, who are a group of people with many different skills and personalities. They include a reluctant hero character.  The defenders improve fortifications, make relationships with the defended and discover some important things about themselves in the process. There is a love story in there somewhere. They have an initial confrontation with the bad guy, getting the measure of him.

Then the fight comes. The defended are nervous but rise to the challenge, proving that they are capable of defending themselves. People die left and right, one of the defended betrays them, but in the end the defenders, those Magnificent Seven/Nine, come out on top. But loss has been incurred, and a mournful air pervades as the story draws to a conclusion, and the fighters are left wondering whether it was all worth it, and who truly won.

Replace Chris with Mal, Calvera with Burgess, the prostitutes with the Mexican farmers, and you have yourself a working basis for a nice “inspired by” episode. And “Heart Of Gold” is a really good one, that showcases some of the best that Firefly has to offer.

Every crew-member of Serenity has a role to play in this episode, some kind of stand-out moment, even if they don’t get to affect the action of the main plot in a significant way. Mal is the leader, and has that fraught interaction with Nandi, that Inara gets sucked up into, the captain and the companion forced to come to terms with the uncomfortable reality of their feelings for each other. Zoe, in the face of another woman giving birth, starts to move towards the idea of motherhood herself, coming up with one of the series’ best lines in the process: “I’m not so afraid of losing something that I won’t ever try to have it”. Wash shares in that interaction, and later gets thrown into an unexpected gunfight. Kaylee keeps pining after Simon, and gets drawn into the same gunfight as Wash, the two of them utilising their intelligence to take care of the intruders, but not so much that they solve the problem entirely. Book becomes a spiritual comfort to the women of the brothel, and aids in the fighting in a non-combative way. Simon helps Petaline through her labour, despite the fact that he has never done it before. River is on hand to “help” him with some vague comments and funny lines. And Jayne, well, Jayne is there to be crude, lewd and funny. They are the Magnificent Nine of “Heart Of Gold”.

Not every episode of Firefly actually gets to include something for every character, and if you count the activities, interactions and characterisations of Nandi and Burgess as well, “Heart Of Gold” is practically groaning under the weight of everything that it has to accomplish in its 44 minute running time. But accomplish it, it does, with no one left out, and no one left under-utilised or under-appreciated. Once again, the central theme of Firefly, that of a loving productive community of people coming together to achieve goals they otherwise would not be able to achieve, in the face of lonelier selfish individuals, is on full display, noted especially by Inara in her closing speech (before she inverts it with her decision to leave).

And the real kicker, of course, is the episodes ending, which ties directly in with the conclusion of The Magnificent Seven. The fight is won, but people have died. Chris and Vin stare back at the farmers, already going back to their lives, and realise that they have not won all that much in their victory, with the people they were defending the true victors. Mal, mourning Nandi, wishes that he had never even met her, realising too that he is no victor from the conflict with Burgess, and that if anyone “won” it is the men and women of the Heart of Gold, which will survive as part of a community that may now have a chance to thrive. The way Burgess says “She was just a whore” could just as easily be Calvera saying “A man like you…why?”

Mal has lost Nandi, and because of the experience that they have all had with her, he may be about to lose Inara too. Like, The Magnificent Seven, and its progenitor, “Heart Of Gold” thus ends on a rather bittersweet note, perhaps the perfect way to glide the audience into what became the series’ final episode.

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Kildare North: Ashling Merriman (AAA-PBP) (18 Days To Election)

I’m going to start taking a closer look at the Kildare North candidates, going by party, alphabetically. First up, AAA-PBP, with Ashling Merriman.

It’s not as easy as it could be to find information about Merriman’s campaign online. Her website appears to be a recently erected WordPress blog, with one post that essentially contains an election poster. Her campaign FB page links to a different website, that appears to be permanently dead. Hmm (if any of this changes, be mindful of the date this was posted).

So who is she? I needed to go to her RTE candidate page to get some actual info first.

A first-time candidate, Ashling Merriman works at Naas General Hospital, where she acts as a union representative. She has been active in the anti-water charges movement in the Naas area.”

The PBP page, which doesn’t come up easily on a Google search, has a bit more.

Ashling has been living and working in Naas for over twenty years. She has worked in Naas General Hospital for eleven years where she is a union representative. In her job she promotes workers rights, fairness and equality. She wants to see real jobs created not underpaid, forced labour schemes.
Ashling was one of the leading organisers in the original 2,000 strong Right to Water march in Naas. Ashling continues to co-ordinate activity through leafleting and local assemblies. She is 100% committed to working with and for the people on local issues and against all the austerity measures that have been inflicted on us. More recently, Ashling has highlighted the terrible housing crisis. She is involved with the Right to Housing Campaign and has taken part in protests at Kildare county council on opening up boarded houses, taking over NAMA properties, introducing rent controls and an increase in rent supplement. Ashling also campaigned against a plan to knock down 44 council houses in Rathangan and replace them with only 22
.”

On her own merits, I have little reasonable objection to Ashling Merriman. A union background, an emphasis on health from personal experience and active political involvement outside of elections. Her work in regards rent controls and rent supplement is something I admire. But when it comes right down to it, as with nearly everything with groups like AAA-PBP, there is too much anger and not enough substance. It’s not enough to endlessly bash the governments record and lead an endless train of protests against everything. Where’s the policy? Merriman doesn’t seem to have much in an online sense, no local manifesto, no images of leaflets, which is frustrating.

A few questionnaires, like this on The Journal, but which lack depth. Same for her results on Smartvote (you have to fill out the survey to get access to them, annoying) where she declined to provide explanations for her actual viewpoints. Smartvote is left with the “party line”. On whether it’s better to invest railways/trams or buses, the comment is “Invest in both”. Helpful.

But never mind, because after I wrote most of this out, one of her leaflets, with a local manifesto, came through the door! Yay! An emphasis on providing social housing and controlling rent in Kildare North is nothing I would object to, and neither are the ideas of banning zero hour contracts and minimum wage increases. But there is a certain Naas-skewed focus in a couple of the points, which makes the manifesto read like something for a local race. Merriman leaves the specifics of how to achieve these to the “National Priorities” section, which is what you would expect of AAA-PBP, with all of the usual problems.

You want to fix the health service, provide housing, reverse cuts? How are you going to pay for it? Inevitably then you get into AAA-PBP’s fantasy land wealth tax based economic plan, combined with USC reduction and various charge destructions, which simply will not fill the gaps in the Irish finances. They even sort of acknowledge it one point, saying that a “Robin Hood tax on the super-rich” would “help” reverse cutbacks in the healthcare system, which is actually a step down from their usual rhetoric. There’s too much thinking inside a vacuum with the AAA-PBP economic policies, like the idea that altering the Corporation Tax system to charge companies more wouldn’t led to some of those companies living Ireland. But none of this really matters.

Here’s the thing with an entity like AAA-PBP, one of those hard left marriages of groups for election purposes that will all too easily split up ala the United Left Alliance. The people at the top, while squabbling endlessly with other left-wing movements, aren’t so ignorant electorally as to fail to recognise where they stand to make gains. And that’s in Dublin, where they have always had the most traction, the largest supporter base. Outside of Dublin, they focus on larger urban areas. That’s why its four sitting TD’s are in Dublin constituencies, and why 26 of its 28 sitting councillors are in cities (the other two being in Sligo Town and Wexford Town). Working class areas in an urban environment, that’s where those votes are.

And while Kildare North could never be accurately described as “rural”, with the numerous mid-sized towns, tech industries and fairly large population, it would be fair to say that it is not entirely “urban” either. And, as such, it will never be the most fertile ground for AAA-PBP. The devil is in the details: After no hard-left entity contested the 2011 GE here, a single PBP candidate ran in the entire county of Kildare in the last local election, Martin Grehan in Maynooth. He got just over 5% of first preferences, enough to be competitive for the last seat, but proved underwhelming in terms of transfer attractiveness. In the end, in a place with 9 seats for 15 candidates, he couldn’t get it done. In comparison, Reada Cronin of Sinn Fein got double the first preferences and was elected on the first count. She’s running for TD now. I have no idea what Grehan is doing. Now it’s four seats for 12 candidates, on a GE constituency scale.

AAA-PBP will throw candidates into most constituencies, but the organisations make-up is heavily skewed towards urban areas, and Dublin above anything. In most other constituencies, candidates will be those of little electoral experience, little prominence outside of their immediate area (Merriman mentions Naas eight times in her leaflet, Kildare Town once, and no other places), and with a small budget to work with. That is sometimes enough to get a candidate over the line in a small local election constituency, but not in a general.

There’s also the reality that people within AAA-PBP hold onto their core beliefs so hard that everything becomes a red-line issue, and thus the chances of them entering government, even under some kind of left wing coalition headed by Sinn Fein, is extremely unlikely. Some call that a sign of integrity, but to the extent that it goes, I call it self-harmful stubbornness. There’s no compromise with the AAA-PBP, and they are the kind of group that will happily stay in opposition from now until the end of days. And that’s not something I can get behind.

Ashling Merriman seems quite nice, enthusiastic and sincere in her beliefs. I’d probably give her a fourth or fifth preference as it stands. But she really doesn’t have a prayer here. There’s a plethora of other left-wing candidates – Cronin, Young, Stagg (technically), Murphy – and she will not be at the head of that pile when the votes are counted. Maybe she knows that, and her candidacy now is about raising awareness of her central issues, raising her own profile in the county ahead of a potential tilt at the next locals and adding to the perception that AAA-PBP is a truly national party. Beyond achieving those things and getting into the middle of the pack on polling day – getting ahead of Young and maybe Fianna Fail’s Frank O’Rourke would be significant – there’s little else to say.

Next up, the Soldiers of Destiny.

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Job Policies And A Link Dump (19 Days To Election)

Let’s talk employment and employment policies. Obviously, this will always be the catch all important election issue, and I am no exception to this rule. When I voted in 2011, I was unemployed. Since then, I’ve had several jobs, none longer than 9 months, before landing my current part-time gig, which is permanent insofar as there is no set end date at the present time. That’s great, but it is part-time, and there are plenty of weeks when my net earnings are less what I would earn if I wasn’t working at all, which is frustrating to say the least. My second job recently came to an end because my employer went out of business (I’ll only say that it was a retailer).

I want more work. I want stable work. I want to be paid more, in line with my experience and qualifications. I want to feel like my decision to ignore social welfare payments as much as is practical is not a mug’s game.

How do the parties’ employment policies look to me? This is based purely on employment related policy I found on the internet. I’m aware that many other things tie into employment, but I’ll get to them, hopefully.

Fine Gael go down a nice and easy route, with a policy page that is just a section of brief bullet points. 7% unemployment within the short to medium term seems like a doable objective, but those numbers are always fuzzy, and a 200’000 new job objective by 2020 seems like a figure plucked out of thin air. While it won’t benefit me, the note on apprenticeships is a welcome idea. FG bang the drum on supporting self-employed and start-ups, but I’m not sure my trust in them is strong enough to take that at face value. And the final point, on the Corporation Tax Rate, is one that I welcome.

Fianna Fail have a little bit more substance in their equivalent. A big emphasis on the reduction of taxes and rates for start-ups and unemployed. To a layman like me in such issues, this reads as a little confusing, so it won’t do FF any electoral favours in that regards. But I can get a sense of a certain commercial populism: I doubt the entirety of these plans are viable, in terms of decreased tax yields from businesses.

Labour’s website lacks any brief summation, aside from trumpeting job growth during their time in government. Not exactly great stuff. The lengthy policy document includes the pledge for full employment by 2018, an utter fairy tale, that makes the party sound truly desperate.

Sinn Fein are a bit better, and even avoid getting too out there in their summation. Increasing the minimum wage a bit is a good idea, as is the destruction of zero hour contracts, which I experienced first-hand in the last 12 months. The parties call for action on low-income employed is something to take note of.

Renua have a lengthy document. Simplicity seems to be beyond them, unless it’s for dealing with crime. Revising upwards only rent reviews for SME’s is a good idea, but I’m not sure they should namedrop FAS as something to complete the demolishing of without talking about any proposed reforms of its replacement. In the end, they’re parroting Fine Gael more than they might care to admit.

The Social Democrats too seem to struggle with summations, and their employment policy is in two different sections of the attached manifesto. There’s a certain deregulation feel hidden in some policies – reducing bureaucracy can easily turn into a free for all when it comes to revenue and taxation I think – but they also commit to ending zero hour contracts as well as the excellent living wage idea.

AAA-PBP don’t have a single website. AAA has nothing on jobs specifically aside from criticising the governments record, while PBP’S statements on employment amount to “End tax haven status – new development model – tens of thousands of new jobs”. It’s not enough guys. It’s too underpants gnomes for me.

I’ll leave it there, since I don’t feel the need to look at the single seat parties or the Independents. If I was to rank the above based on my positivity to what was said, relative to ease of access and understanding, and to my trust that some of it would be implemented if the party in question was to be in government…well, I just don’t know. I liked Fine Gael’s straight forwardness while distrusting their intentions, I liked some of the minutia of Sinn Fein’s while deriding their basic economic shallowness. In terms of the smaller parties, I suppose the Soc Dems would get my endorsement, with reservations on a few issues.

In the end, I’m not totally opposed to the maintaining of the current tax schemes on SME’s, but feel that greater allowances in the first 12 months of business, the reformation of regulation in regards banks relationships to SME’s, and a commitment to increasing the minimum wage and reducing or getting rid of zero hour contracts are necessary steps for a more vibrant employment market.

Sinn Fein and AAA-PBP are the vote getters with this though. The populist elements will win out, and while I don’t think the jobs record will harm Fine Gael as much as some think it will, Labour’s delivery of its current policy isn’t going to do them any favours. Fianna Fail could stand to be a bit different from FG if they want to turn this into a vote-winning issue, in my opinion

 

—-

A brief link-dump of a few things I found interesting this week.

This discussion on the housing crisis echoes many of my own concerns. There seems to be a real inability for the current government, either party, to actually face up to the prospect of controlling rent prices, especially in Dublin, where the situation has been allowed to grow way out of control. And as for more homes, and its connections to the homelessness issue…Alan Kelly’s impossible-to-build micro-houses tell you all you need to know about his failure in office. The failure to match Rent Allowance to the rise in prices, and the legalised stigma surrounding it are other gigantic failures of the current government. More to come on this.

-Down far on this round-up piece from RTE is a brief mention of the Greens and party leader Easmon Ryan.

He added that despite numerous media debates in the past 24 hours, climate change was not raised and it was a priority for his party.”

Climate change should be a much bigger issue at this election, at every election in every country, than it is, and it’s a shame that only the Green’s have the gumption put it front and centre. More to come on this too.

This blog post talks about the stupidity of the suddenly rampant term “fiscal space”, and how the governments use of the term is a serious mistake. I hate terms that suddenly jump into the public sphere just as votes are called – remember “fiscal compact”? – and this one was a doozy, where government parties painted a target on themselves, and were deservedly burned for it.

-Lastly, this RTE piece by political analyst Sean Donnelly is an interesting look at the efforts to get “bonus seats”, that is, arranging candidates and inter-party transfers in constituencies to the point where a party can get a higher percentage of seats than they did of the actual vote. PR-STV inherently makes this quite hard, in direct contrast to the UK’s moronic FPTP system. But it can be done. Fine Gael won 16 seats more than their vote share indicated they would win last time out (never forget that Kenny dragged three other FG TD’s with him in Mayo, an astonishing feat). The flip side is also true, with Sinn Fein having a poor record, with two seats less in the 31st Dail than they should have had with their percentage of the vote. They rarely run two candidates per constituency of course, and it’s probably more reflective of the left side of the spectrum in Irish politics, which has a subpar track record when it comes to transferring on general ideological lines.

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Candidate Videos From Kildare North (20 Days To Election)

So, RTE came up with a really great idea for this election cycle, by inviting every registered candidate to film a short one-minute piece to sell themselves to the electorate. You can find the staggeringly long list of candidates here. While the time constraint prevents in-depth outlining of policy, it’s still a very cool way to introduce candidates.

For the moment, I thought I’d take a look at the Kildare North candidates’ offerings, and give some thoughts.

Michael Beirne (Independent)

Nothing up yet. I think he was a late registration, and may yet get the opportunity to record.

Reada Cronin (Sinn Fein)

Liked this one. Opposition candidates, especially in Sinn Fein I’ve found, tend to do nothing but bash the government, but Cllr Cronin does take the time to mention some of her personal actions in the constituency (as well as bash the government). There’s a clear message and theme here, and annoying reference to 1916 aside (oh, how much if that are we supposed to put up with?) this left a good impression.

Bernard Durkan (Fine Gael)

Man, this wasn’t great was it? Deputy Durkan comes off a little unprepared here, and offers little of substance, even with the short timeframe. It comes off less as a plea for an endorsement and more of an exercise in deflection. And does the housing crisis effect “all of us” Deputy? I imagine not you so much. This seems like a first draft speech, that barely mentions the party he’s running for, deliberately.

Maebh Ní Fhallúin (Green)

This was good. A well-prepared and delivered statement that hit on all of the Greens’ key themes, and even had room for a nifty slogan right at the end (only candidate playing up Irish language too). Healthcare, housing, equal rights. Who could object?

Shane FitzGerald (Renua)

Nothing up yet. I’ll check back later. Doesn’t speak well of him.

James Lawless (Fianna Fail)

Not bad. Seems like a well prepared statement. I like the introduction with his short bio as a way of connecting, and the factual criticisms of the sitting TD’s regards Garda numbers, developments, etc. Seems like a video tailor made for the local audience, which I’m fine with. Bit of a secondary school teacher vibe.

Anthony Lawlor (Fine Gael)

Oh my God, stop looking at your notes, it’s a 55 second speech. Maybe that’s harsh, but it’s hard not to be distracted when his eyes keep darting to the lower left every five second. As for the content, seems like fairly boiler-plate “Keep the recovery going” FG speak. Sense of unoriginality from the Deputy.

Ashling Merriman (AAA-PBP)

More looking at notes constantly. Very little of substance here compared to other candidates – seems like “Government bad, me good”, and little else -, and seems overly-nervous on camera. That’s not the worst flaw, but if you’re running for the Dail you should be a bit more confident than this.

Catherine Murphy (Social Democrats)

This is probably the most overtly positive of the bunch, with two sections talking about how great Ireland is/can be, sandwiching a more critical section focused on the government. Murphy has a good delivery, though the 53 seconds here sound more like the end of a stump speech, with an unnecessary shout-out to her fellow Soc Dem members.

Frank O’Rourke (Fianna Fail)

Must have somewhere to be, because this feels rushed. Took a long time to get past pointless introductions – who cares what your daughter’s name is, honestly? – but interesting that the first issue he actually mentioned was homelessness. Had the feeling this was a 90 second speech crammed into 55, and I don’t think he comes off super well, especially compared to Lawless.

Emmet Stagg (Labour)

Ahhh, stop looking at notes! While Stagg is very well-spoken, the duration of this effort – the shortest of the candidates – and the aimlessness of the content don’t really combine well to leave a good impression. A nod to social justice, and nothing else really.

Brendan Young (Independent)

There’s a certain…intensity here that is just a little off-putting, but there is a sincerity too that is very palpable. Standard hard-left talking points abound, which doesn’t appeal to me but I’m sure will to others. Looks like a seasoned campaigner ready for a battle. Decent impression.

If I was to rank:

  1. Maebh Ní Fhallúin
  2. Reada Cronin
  3. James Lawless
  4. Catherine Murphy
  5. Brendan Young
  6. Frank O’Rourke
  7. Ashling Merriman
  8. Brendan Durkan
  9. Anthony Lawlor
  10. Emmet Stagg
  11. Michael Beirne (NA)
  12. Shane FitzGerald (NA)
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Review: Cartel Land

Cartel Land

Trailer

cl1

Not as dramatic as it seems.

After seeing the more positive side of life on the US/Mexican border in the Ross Brothers’ Western, it was with some interest that I turned to the other Netflix provided recent documentary offering on the same general subject, from director Matthew Heineman. Yesterday, I talked about a refreshingly different viewpoint from that which typically dominates discussion of this border region, but Cartel Land was more in line with what we have come to expect.

Deep in the heart of Mexico, violent and seemingly unstoppable drug cartels tear lives apart, in an endless war between themselves and government authorities left impotent in the face of this criminal behemoth. Enter the “autodefensas”, a civilian militia dedicated to fighting back against the cartels, with or without government help. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, other militias attempt to stand against the drug and illegal worker trade.

Heineman’s work, focusing primarily on the ever more bitter insurgency conflict in the Mexican state of Michoacan, is a remarkably detailed insight into a war that so much of the world knows so little about. We are used to tales of cartel atrocities – Cartel Land opens with some grizzly details of the inhuman actions carried about the “Templar” Cartel – and the ineffectiveness of a government riddled with inefficiency and corruption. But less known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is this paramilitary element, as locals decide they simply have had enough. Procuring guns and making an organisation that follows the militant path while espousing a democratic philosophy, the autodefensas go from town to town, clearing house and acting as both police and army.

With the charismatic “El Doctor” – local physician Jose Mireles, who is the initial leading light of the autodefensas – to focus the narrative on, Heineman already has a good running start, but initially I was actually worried about the early direction of Cartel Land, which was approaching dangerous levels of “puffpiece” after around a half hour. After all, we had a suave, silver-tongued hero fighting back against an unadulterated bad guy, civilians flocking to his banner, bullyboy soldiers of the federal government forced to back down, and a general sense that the autodefensas were the only game in town when it came to fighting back against the cartels. It’s almost like a remake of The Magnificent Seven, only minus the seven, the Mexican farmers standing up for their rights from the very off.

But the skill in Heineman’s film is in the way that he carefully builds this figure and his organisation up, only to let the truth start peeping in, leading to things coming crashing down. The seemingly devoted family man Mireles isn’t quite as faithful as he seems, and indeed displays a creepy attitude towards women: a truly awkward sequence late on shows Mireles clumsily coming on to an uncomfortable looking girl. The autodefensas aren’t adored by all and sundry, and seem to have a problem keeping people on their side, especially when Mireles’ charming nature with crowds is not around. They intimidate and threaten as well as any cartel, and some members truly glory in it. And Cartel Land’s final devastating point, that any organisation like the autodefensas is inevitably ripe for infiltration and corruption, with government acquiescence, is effectively built up to, the book end segments at the beginning and conclusion one of the searing comparisons I have ever seen a documentary pull.

Heineman is to be commended in the way that he makes such potent use of his access. He is present at several moments when gunfire erupts and people are killed, and also at imprompt arrests and interrogations carried out by the autodefensas, who grow increasingly radical and violent as the film progresses. But then again he also blanches away at truly crucial moments, such as when the militia group captures a cartel member alive, and Mireles orders one of his men to put this cartel man “into the ground”, the exact reality of this statement is never made explicitly clear.

On the other side of things is Arizona native Tim Foley, a man from an abused background who has managed to right his life but finds himself embittered by the illegal immigrant, the bogeyman that negatively affects his job prospects without enough being done by the authorities. Foley gets comparatively little time in Cartel Land than Mireles and the autodefensas – the film connects the two of them directly only in the briefest of moments – and actually looks, to my eyes, far more childish, playing at soldier while actual lives are at risk much further south. Foley comes off as someone who has seen a few too many action movies, and his attitude towards those that he “apprehends” is tyrannical and scary. The barely hidden racism – one of Foley;s crew openly states that it is impossible for two races to co-exist in the same country – is the final kicker, and that’s after you realise that the cartel activity that Foley claims to be opposed to is literally occurring thousands of miles away.

In drawing contrast between the situation with paramilitary groups on either side of the border, Heineman shines a light on the escalating, but inherently hyperbolistic militia groups claiming to perform a national service in Arizona, while showcasing where the real life or death situation is developing, largely away from the cameras and significant worldwide media attention. And the situation in Mexico is a bleak and ugly one, a cyclical system where violence begets resistance, which only begets more violence. Uniforms change, but the drug production doesn’t stop. Like a latter day Hundred Years War, various groups squabble over the right to call themselves “in charge”, with nary an ending in sight. Western told the story of the US/Mexican relations with a hopeful air of humanity simply deciding to get along with each other, but Cartel Land warns of the opposite: a world where dog eats dog, and where the body count of those caught in the middle will grow ever larger.

cl2

A fascinating watch.

(All images are copyright of The Orchard).

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National Predictions (21 Days To Election)

The first few days of election campaigns, past that opening rush of getting posters up and trying to grab the spotlight, tend to be a bit of an anti-climax for me. Manifestos aren’t polished enough yet to be released, debates are still a bit off, not even all the candidates are registered, technically speaking.

Indeed, there are only two things that have really grabbed my attention thus far. The first is Enda Kenny’s continuing refusal to talk part in television debates and party leader get together, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadker stepping in the other evening on 6.1, opposite Burton, Martin and Adams. In 2011, Kenny’s shying away from the spotlight was on odd thing, that didn’t really bother me all that much. During the course of his term of Taoiseach, he has had plenty of the spotlight in the form of parliamentary questions. But now, back on the campaign trial, he seems to be content to duck away from the cameras when other party leaders are nearby. Is it an electoral strategy of some kind, aiming to stop any of his own unpopularity from deflecting onto his party? Or does he just really not want to do interviews and Q&A’s of this nature? Either way, I hope that he cuts it out sooner rather than later. I’m sure Kenny will appear at the more formal debates, which are bound to be interesting, but at this point I’m not sure if that’s good enough.

But instead of focusing on that, let’s talk some predictions instead, on a national level.

The state of the Dail upon its conclusion was the following, the blue line representing the magic number of 83 seats:

dail5.PNG

 

A lot has changed since 2011, with defections, bye-elections, new parties and the looming loss of eight seats.

I think Fine Gael will do a bit better than some people suppose. I think that their economic arguments will gain traction, and that they will be able to make a lot of hay out of things like the recent employment numbers and the like. I think they will institute better vote management than their opponents in a lot of key areas, and have more going for them than a lot of people suppose. While the senior government party is going to lose seats, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a return somewhere in the region of high fifties, or even 60 on a very good day.

I think that Labour, who have seen such a backlash from their traditional support base, and for good reason, will suffer more. Changing leaders hasn’t really helped, and their leading lights are just packed full of faces that a lot of people just don’t really like. Really tellingly, just about every member of the party is facing a serious challenge wherever they are. There won’t be a total cataclysm-esque wipe-out, but I do think that well over half of those 33 seats are toast, at least.

Despite the apparent stability of the polls, I think Fianna Fail are going to enjoy somewhat of a recovery. A lot of new faces and the natural boost that comes from just being in opposition is going to result in seats, and it helps that the ridiculous issues of running multiple candidates has mostly been settled. People forget how strong FF’s core is, the ones who elected 19 of them back into office in 2011. It won’t take a gigantic swing to get a lot more.

And the same goes for Sinn Fein. The sky’s the limit if you listen to them, and it certainly will be a substantial gain for them. But Fianna Fail are there to compete more seriously for votes, and the harder left will also siphon off some support. A gain of ten or so seems like a reasonable expectation.

The AAA/PBP banner are bound to see their sitting TD’s re-elected, and should have gained enough support in Dublin to get in a couple of more.

Renua will be skirting on Fine Gael’s coattails, but I’m not convinced that the party is any shape to be getting anything more than what they already have.

The same goes for the Social Democrats, who I think will struggle to go beyond having their current allotment re-elected. Just a bit too early for both of the new parties.

I think Eamon Ryan has done enough work over the past five years to win a single Green seat.

I think Seamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group is a decent bet to be re-elected, despite Tipperary being a bloodbath this time round.

Independents4Change is apparently a registered political party (as opposed to an ill-defined “grouping”), containing Mick Wallace, Clare Daly and Joan Collins. I’d say all three should be re-elected, but that’s all.

Independents, coming in such varied hues, will be difficult to ascertain, since national prominence could so easily result in little support in more localised votes, and the issue is complicated by “Inds4Change”. I think a slight increase in “true” Independents, with most, if not all, of the current batch being re-elected, is on the cards.

The returning Ceann Comhairle is a member of Fine Gael.

That leaves us with something like this, 79 being the new magic number:

dail4

 

 

In this scenario, the current government would have 66 as it stands, 67 with the CC’s support. You could add Renua support and a few “like-minded” Independents, but it would be a stretch to see a stable government formulating. The other viable option, indeed maybe the only viable option, is really FG/FF, and boy wouldn’t that be interesting…

This is all just educated guesswork of course, and my opinion is bound to change between now and polling day. I remember over-estimating Fianna Fail’s numbers only a short time before 2011’s vote, but I think it would be fair to say that the current government is nowhere near as unpopular as they were five years ago.

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