Governments doing their jobs are not ‘nanny states’

The IEA, under the guise of the European Policy Information Centre, which operates from the IEA offices in London, has published the first Nanny State Index, described as ‘a league table of the worst places in the European Union to eat, drink, smoke and vape‘.

As you might expect, if you know the IEA, good (low scores) means unregulated, and bad (high scores) means regulated. The highest scores go to Finland, Sweden the UK, and Ireland, in that order. I’m quite proud of that. I believe that states have a role in protecting their citizens from the damage caused by unrestricted marketing of unhealthy behaviours and lifestyles. As many of the costs fall back on the state, there is a perfectly respectable economic argument for this as well.

There is a press campaign, so that journalists, and sub-editors, across Anglophone Europe at least, can cut and paste headlines. Oddly enough, for a project reportedly produced with six partners, and seven collaborators, in other countries, only one, the Visio Institute in Slovenia, now has a report of the index on their website that I can see.

Countries do well on this index by not regulating and not taxing alcohol, tobacco, e-cigarettes, and soft-drinks. The details of the scoring are complex, but quite well explained on the site. The overall scores are plotted against life expectancy, on a page headed ‘analysis‘, and no obvious correlation is shown. No statistics are shown either, and there is no account taken of wealth, the dominant factor in life expectancy, nor of changes over time. This isn’t a very credible analysis. As for references, apparently real men ‘don’t need no stinking references’. Frank de Vocht has done a proper analysis of this, and finds a modest effect, of about five weeks of life per person for every one point increase in the alcohol and tobacco components of the index.

Moving on, what is all this about? EPICENTRE, the coordinating body for the initiative, provides no  information on its funding on its own site. A spokesperson has confirmed that EPICENTRE, is 100% funded by the IEA. In turn, the IEA are coy about their funding, in fact a spokesperson today said they did not disclose the names of their private donors, and would neither confirm nor deny that they still received funding from the tobacco industry. It’s known that they did in the past, and in an index of transparency for leading UK think tanks, the IEA comes out close to the bottom.

My belief, subject to refutation, is that the IEA acts to support the interests of those who pay for it, by arguing against regulation on health grounds. The price of accepting their advice would be many extra deaths, many ruined lives, and higher profits for their corporate funders. This would be another good example of private profits and public costs. I do not think we should pay this.

My own interests, as an academic, and an aspiring politician, are a matter of public record, I fail to see why the IEA should be allowed to hide its conflicts of interest behind a veil of obscurity.

Incidentally it is reported that the UK Charity Commission is now reviewing the IEA, specifically asking ‘whether IEA is sufficiently transparent about the sources of funding for key political activities, and whether some of its controversial political activities are within its charitable objects’, which I would commend.

V0011830 An old wet nurse; symbolising France as nanny-state and publ Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images An old wet nurse; symbolising France as nanny-state and public health provider. Colour photomechanical reproduction of a lithograph by N. Dorville, 1901. 1901 By: Noël DorvillePublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Remembering all the dead of 1916

The photograph below may baffle at first, because it is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is, of course, the First Dáil, meeting in the Mansion House in 1919, but it is not the usual photograph, reproduced many times since, it is one belonging to my late grandmother, Julia. Many of the faces will be familiar, deValera, sitting in centre of the front row, Arthur Griffith beside him, and many others. The man standing behind Dev, to the right as you look at it, in a natty coat with a velvet collar will not be so familiar, but it is my grandfather, Michael Staines.


Here’s another photograph of him, from a few years earlier.




The uniform may look strange too, I believe it to be his Irish volunteers uniform. We don’t know when this was taken, but it may well have been only a few weeks before the rising of Easter 1916.

It’s now the vigil of Easter Sunday and in a few hours I will stand outside the GPO to commemorate his actions and those of the other, but of course the word matters – the other what? Heroes, terrorists, freedom-fighters, murderers, patriots, an endless spiral of antonyms, which may say more about the writers than the reality. The rising happened and I think it changed the path of our history both for good and for ill.

In 1916 my grandfather fought in the GPO. Among other actions he brought weapons, cut the telegraph lines, shot at people, raised a flag, and eventually carried the wounded James Conolly out. Three of his brothers fought with him. A fourth died fighting in the Royal Navy later in World War 1. In 2016, in a world he would hardly have recognized, I will stand and watch a parade go by. In many ways he contributed to the world I live in, as a fighter both in the War of Independence and the Civil War (Free State), as a TD, as the founder of the guards, as an alderman, and as a senator.

I think we need to remember what happened as truly as we can. When I went to Trinity in 1978, I found one item that intrigued me, tucked away on a wall insude the Nassau strret side of Trinity. It was a memorial plaque to a young man, a liitle older than I who had died there in 1916. Such plaques were and are common around Dublin. What made this one different was that this young man was a British soldier Pte. Arthur Smith a Hussar from Hexham. I felt then, and still feel that this was the right thing to do. Would my grandfather have approved? I have no idea, but he died sixty years ago.

There is an association, called the Relatives of 1916, who have taken umbrage at the proposal to list all of those who died in the Rising and afterwards in Glasnevin cemetery. Leaving aside the question of how this group can speak for all of us, without asking us first, I think they are wrong, just as the activists from Misneach who scribbled on John Redmond’s banner  in College Green were wrong.

No one owns the Easter rising. No one owns the dead. There were no first class and second class deaths in 1916, so let us remember them all equally.

Repeal the 8th?

I’ve been approached by two groups, the Pro-Life campaign, and the RepealEight campaign. Both requested me to indicate my views on the 8th amendment, specifically whether I am for it or against it, from the pro-life campaign, and whether I would support a referendum on the amendment, from RepealEight. This is a key issue for many people.

My own views, which  may not be popular with either side, are not simple, in that I favour repealing the 8th amendment, but oppose unrestricted abortion. I do not claim that I am right, but this is where I am starting from.

Some background first. I’m a doctor, and started my working life as a paediatrician. I spent several years working in the Coombe hospital, mostly caring for very sick premature babies, and a range of babies with congenital anomalies and chromosomal problems. I’m a man, I’ve never been, and never will be pregnant, so I don’t have that experience, but I have seen many mothers with critically ill and dying babies. I have a bit more experience than most people of both the tragedies and the joys of birth. I now work in public health, and a good deal of my recent work has been on intellectual disability, specifically my work with Special Olympics Ireland, and on autism.

In 1983, I was in my final year in medical school, when the 8th amendment was brought in. The purpose of this amendment was to prohibit any legislation regulating abortion in Ireland. Abortion, was, and is, illegal under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. At the time, my father, a solicitor, and many other lawyers, including Alan Shatter, argued that the effect of the amendment would be to bring in a right to abortion, under the constitution. This subsequently turned out to be correct. Truthfully, I cannot now remember how I voted in 1983. I do remember watching SPUC in action, and later their trying to use the courts to muzzle people. At the time, I disliked them, – they did little to protect any child, born or unborn.

So, now, I think the 8th amendment was a bad idea. Abortion ought to be the subject of legislation, not an item in the constitution. Placing it in the constitution let the Oireacthas off the hook. There will be, almost certainly, be a vote to repeal it, and it will almost certainly fall. Both of these I support.

The hard question is what ought to replace it. At the moment, in the UK, abortion is available on demand. My view is that once a woman is pregnant there are two sets of rights involved – hers, and the baby’s. I also believe that rights impose duties, both on individuals and on the wider society. If they do not, they are vacuous. I do not believe that any right, of anyone, trumps all others in every circumstance. Managing rights, and the conflict of rights, is hard. I also appreciate, very clearly, that I am not ever going to be in the situation of being pregnant and not wanting to be.

What about unwanted pregnancy? I said earlier that I disliked SPUC. This was because for all their rhetoric about protecting babies, they did little to support women who found pregnancy difficult. Women can and do find themselves in bad situations, often because of poverty, which are made much worse by pregnancy. For me, the right social response is to support the woman, not terminate the pregnancy. I accept that others disagree, but having cared for a baby born at 22 weeks, and seen her parents interacting with a child who was going to live for less than an hour, I believe strongly that babies have rights, both in-utero, and after delivery. As a country, we have obligations to vindicate these rights, but also to balance these with the rights of the mother. This may not be easy, but there is no guarantee that a serious rights based approach will be easy.

In other countries, many babies affected by congenital anomalies, and chromosomal anomalies are terminated, purely because of their condition. I am unalterably opposed to selective termination based on gender, race, anatomy, or chromosome count. I take a firm rights based approach to disability, and this includes a right to live. Please try to imagine what people with Down syndrome think of quasi-routine termination of babies with trisomy 21, or better yet, ask someone.

What about fatal foetal anomalies? By far the commonest of these is anencephaly. This is a condition in which the brain fails to form. Such babies miscarry, or die  very shortly after birth, and are now usually diagnosed on the first routine ultrasound in pregnancy. I do not see any realistic objection to termination in such a case if that is the mother’s choice. Other conditions are proposed, as ‘fatal foetal anomalies’, for example Edward’s syndrome (trisomy 18) and Patau’s syndrome (trisomy 13). Many children affected by these two disorders die within the first year of life, but some do not. I do not believe that these, and the many similar disorders, are in the same category as anencephaly.

Are there difficult cases? Of course. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar is a good example. I said earlier that it is hard to balance the rights of mother and baby. This may show what can happen when you fail to do do the work of finding the correct balance (there were several distinct issues in her care, besides her pregnancy). For me, (bearing in mind that I am not an obstetrician), a reasonable treatment for a woman in her condition might have been a termination. What about another tragedy – a woman raped, and pregnant, as in the X case? I try not be a hypocrite. If my daughter were in that situation, I would ensure that, if she so chose, she could have a termination. I’m well-paid, well-educated, and well-connected. I would have no difficulty arranging for this. I don’t see that I can argue that other women should be denied this.

I think we need comprehensive, but quite restrictive, legislation on abortion. I respect most of those who disagree with me, on both sides. I admire the courage of James Reilly and the Fine Gael/Labour government bringing in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. This Act is, literally, tied in knots by the constitution. It needs to be un-knotted.  If the Oireachtas does not do it, I think the courts will, perhaps following the very recent judgement in Northern Ireland.

Evictions in Tyrrelstown

Listening to Morning Ireland this morning, and reading Kitty Holland’s excellent article in the Irish Times made my blood boil. Briefly 60 or more families in Tyrrelstown are going to be legally evicted over the next four months by Goldman Sachs. The reason is that a Goldman Sachs linked investment fund, Beltany Property Finance, wishes to sell the houses. As many as 208 families in total may be evicted in this one estate. All of this is legal.

I’m no lawyer, but the relevant Act is the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. The relevant bit is Section 34 ‘Grounds for termination by landlord’. Under this landlords may terminate tenancies on several grounds. One, Ground 3 i the table in that section is this :-

‘The landlord intends, within 3 months after the termination of the tenancy under this section, to enter into an enforceable agreement for the transfer to another, for full consideration, of the whole of his or her interest in the dwelling or the property containing the dwelling’.

I assume this is the basis for the termination of tenancies here (but again, I am no lawyer, so if you know better, let me know).

There is little rental property available in Dublin. This morning on there were 2 properties to rent in Tyrrelstown,and only 400 properties anywhere in Dublin at under €1,500 a month. The odds are that most of these families will have to move, and many will not be able to find accommodation at a price they can pay. The effect of these lawful actions will be to render a large number of families homeless.

The scandal of homelessness in Dublin has been obvious for three years. The roots go back a lot longer, to the crash, to a poor quality, and corrupt, planning system, to greedy and feckless developers, to the decision of local authorities not to bother with social housing, and to our appallingly lax laws on tenancy rights.  The response from the Department of the Environment today, that the tenants should use the PRTB to delay eviction,  is best described as embarrassing. Clearly the civil service, Minister Kelly, and the Department will continue to sit on their hands, and close their eyes tightly. It is time to act.

Although we have yet to form a Government, the Oireahctas is still there. If our politicians could focus on something other than Irish Water, and various combinations of coalitions, they could pass a quick amendment to the Act, giving tenants the right to continue a tenancy even if a property is sold. This is already the norm in commercial property here, and it is usual in residential property lettings in most other developed countries. Anyone up for this? It would be a very constructive way to commemorate 1916.


Politics, politicians, and political activism

There was a fascinating interview on the Marian Finucane show on RTE radio yesterday, with Gino Kenny, the newly elected People before Profit TD. Mr. Kenny, an interesting and thoughtful man, was asked how he felt about being a politician. He was quite clear in his response, he was not a politician, he was a political activist, and in any event he would never be a ‘career politician’.

This made me think. I’m not, yet, an elected politician, although if my Seanad campaign succeeds, I hope to be. I usually describe myself as a doctor, an academic and an activist. Asked for more detail, I will say that I am both a political activist, as a Fine Gael supporter, and a trade union activist; and a social activist, as much of my research, and much of my work outside the academic world, is concerned with supporting people who are working to make their lives better.

Politicians are not especially trusted, although they may be more trusted than journalists, they are much less trusted than academics, or ‘people like me’. Perhaps this is what Deputy Kenny is getting at when he rejects the label of politician, but embraces that of political activist.

Why am I an activist? I grew up in a politically aware and active family, and I was educated by the Jesuits. In both settings, there was a strong emphasis on doing what you could for your community and for others. My mother, Nuala, was very active on our community council, and my late father, Michael, was active in Fine Gael, working with the late Mark Clinton in particular.

I went to school in a fee-paying school, Belvedere, which backed onto the Hardwicke St flats in the North inner-city. No-one in my school could fail to notice the poverty, and the lack of opportunity, for those who grew up around us. Many people from the school, and the wider Jesuit community, notably Fr. Peter McVerry, were, and are, very involved in community work.

I’m a doctor, and I chose a branch of my profession, public health, which is centrally concerned with issues like poverty, justice, housing, diet, exercise, disability, social inequality, environmental justice, and access to education and healthcare. For me, moving into electoral politics, is a very logical continuation of my own work.

Why am I not running as a Fine Gael candidate? I support quite a lot of what the outgoing Government did, in particular, the necessary, and brutal cuts in expenditure, while maintaining social welfare rates, and the tax rises and the pension levy. I think salary cuts to high earning public servants, like myself, could have, and should have, been deeper.

I opposed two of their policies strongly, both publicly and privately. The first was their failure to deal with the housing crisis. NAMA should have been required to build some social housing. Tenants should have been given a right of tenure, even if a property is sold. This should still be done.

The second was the rise in child poverty. I’m not stupid. I was well aware that large cuts in public spending would hurt poorer people, more than wealthier people. I did not, and do not, believe that Ireland had any choice. Having just read Kevin Cardiff’s book on the financial crisis I am more sure of that than before. However, I also believe that some more targeted measures, such as maintaining support for school assistants, breakfast clubs and the like, and some low-cost innovations, for example targeted support for childcare for those seeking to return to work, would have made a difference.

Why run as an Independent, and why not take a party whip? Simply, if I have the honour of being elected, in the TCD constituency, to the Seanad, I can be more effective as an independent. I can do a better job, both of representing Trinity, and of advocating for progressive change, outside a political party.