‘Yes, I said, yes I will yes’ – why ‘Yes’ x 2 is the way to go this Friday

With a mere few days to polling day, you’d be forgiven for being under the impression that we were voting on just one issue on May 22nd. Coverage of the marriage referendum has been so comprehensive, relentless and so repetitive, that it’s all the more surprising that media haven’t been focusing on the other choice being presented to voters – the proposal to lower the age of presidential candidates to 21 – if for no other reason than to just give us all a bit of light relief. But it’s highly likely a significant proportion of the population aren’t even aware they’ll be handed two ballot papers on Friday week. A fine example of democracy in action.

As fatigue begins to set in though, it’s likely we’ll see some half-hearted efforts in the next few days to publicly debate why we should allow 21 year-olds – people who may not even yet have started their first job – to run for President of Ireland.

The reactions to the proposal to date have tended to be predictably dismissive and a bit disparaging, which is disappointing. Granted, this isn’t the most pressing change that needs making in Ireland, but at a time when politics is crying out for an injection of youthful enthusiasm, the scorn that’s been instantly heaped on the suggestion without any detailed consideration subtly demonstrates how we really regard our young people. Surprisingly, even youth organisations have been relatively quiet on the matter, instead preferring to focus on the marriage referendum – which ironically, is a campaign with which young people have thus far engaged on levels rarely seen before. But perhaps they’re just being smart by not channelling their energy and resources into flogging a dead horse when there’s a far more pressing issue on the table.

Why is this amendment even being put to the people? Well, the issue arose during the Constitutional Convention, a forum of 100 citizens established in 2012 to discuss amendments to the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention had also sought amendments on housing rights, social security and healthcare services, but this was somehow deemed more appropriate. It’s a funny one; but it’s likely that the government felt backing a contentious, divisive and ground-breaking Constitutional amendment such as allowing two people in love to officially declare their commitment to each other a risky enough manoeuvre without creating further havoc. Best to play it safe on this one, because let’s face it, this government is already all too familiar with the sensation of egg drying into their whiskers.

So, what discussion have we heard to date in #PresRef, as it’s known in the online sphere? Well, the main assertion is that no-one aged under the age of 35 could possibly have the life experience, capability or maturity expected to carry themselves with dignity in this position of great importance. The majority seems to concur. Apart from perhaps the fact that allowing someone to become President in their twenties means you might get landed with paying the Presidential Pension for a few extra years, that, incredibly appears to be the sum total of the debate. Pretty incredible for something as important as a Constitutional Amendment.

The debate has failed on any level to counteract this argument by pointing out the inherent ageism, laziness and unfairness of it.  We are not voting on whether or not we will have a 21 year-old President, though given the level of opposition to it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a Yes vote would automatically propel one of Jedward into Michael D’s still-warm seat in the Áras come 2019. I can tell you, however, I’d far sooner see either one  – or both of them in there – than the likes of Dana.

The key argument for voting YES to the Presidential amendment is that the current system is anti-democratic, because young people don’t even get the opportunity to present themselves to the electorate. They are currently automatically excluded based on an arbitrary number, rather than getting the chance to be elected or rejected on their merit, or lack of. There is no good reason for this, but plenty of good reasons for our young people – many of them perfectly talented, hardworking, intelligent and capable – to be given the opportunity to put themselves out there. They deserve, at the very least, not to be excluded from this process. And in fact, the key objection to this referendum should be that it proposes to continue excluding adults aged 18-21 from running for Presidential office – the only justification apparently being that it will then mirror the age at which you can become a TD.

So it’ll be two emphatic Yeses for me, because I want to see Ireland becoming a place that’s fairer and kinder, and it strikes me as more than  a little hypocritical to be voting for inclusiveness in one referendum while simultaneously opposing it in the other. But the joy of democracy is that we all have our say, so on Friday week, wherever you stand, be sure to have yours too.

jedward

An abridged version of this post appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 12th May 2015.

Gender Quotas – a necessary evil?

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th April 2015.

Spring is in the air, bringing with it longer days and glorious sunshine. But mixed with the scent of fresh cut grass and cherry blossom, there’s the distinct whiff of a general election, and while in theory, we’re nearly a year away from returning to the polls, politicians are already in full-on electioneering mode. One intriguing element of the next election will be the influence of gender quotas. All political parties will face losing half their funding unless at least 30% of candidates put forward are women.

A drastic measure? Consider this. 566 candidates ran in the 2011 General Election. 86 were women.  25 won seats, meaning that under 14% of our TDs are women – abysmal by international standards. Women’s skills and experience are therefore not proportionally represented in decision-making that affects everyone. This, despite acknowledgement that balanced political participation by both sexes means fairer, more effective democracies – something, surely to which we should all aspire?

So why aren’t women running for election? Commonly cited as barriers to proportional female representation in Ireland are the Five Cs: Cash, Culture, Childcare, Confidence and Candidate Selection. These five factors are interlinked, each impacting the other to create barriers to female participation.

Take cash, to start. Running for election is expensive. Women are economically less well-off then men (this is a fact!). Employments rates drop significantly when children arrive, and many women – who generally still bear primary responsibility for family life – balance this by working part-time, restricting public involvement. Last year, Mayor of Tralee, Pat Hussey resigned from Fine Gael, citing gender quotas. Women, he claimed were being “pushed in” by his party, excluding more experienced members. Mr Hussey, incidentally, claimed to have no problem with women joining councils, but felt factors like babysitting would make it prohibitively expensive for them – an attitude which sharply undermines the role of men in childcare. Which in turn, leads me to culture – the core of it all.

Women battle culture all the time. They’re expected to do more. We have higher expectations of them. Female politicians aren’t just judged on performance, they’re also critiqued on image, appearance, even their voices. When are male politicians subjected to such scrutiny? You can see why confidence, the fourth C is a factor. A key objection to quotas is that women will be selected purely to “make up numbers”; not because they are the best possible candidate. Essentially, a fear that quotas will elect incompetent women at the expense of good men. The economic crash doesn’t say much about the competency of those running the country at the time. Where was accountability and meritocracy then? Why are we now suggesting that women need to prove competency, where men never had to?

Finally, while all of the above contribute to candidate selection difficulties, there is a supply and demand problem. Parties select election candidates, so selector attitudes can contribute – if male candidates have been the norm, breaking the mould can be hard. However, a lack of supply of female candidates putting themselves forward (for the reasons above) restricts those who do want to run women. The vicious circle continues!

So is imposing gender quotas the means of breaking this cycle?

I’m not fully convinced. Quotas are a crude measure, which ignore the issues underpinning the problem. Rather, we need to address barriers that dissuade women in the first place. Childcare, for example, should be viewed not as a female issue, but as a family one. Family-friendly policies may help, but however – and here lies the critical argument! – unless women are adequately represented in the first place, who will drive the change necessary to attract more women into politics?

Evidence also suggests that increased visibility of females in politics can mobilise women, resulting in greater involvement. So while gender quotas aren’t in themselves the answer, I can’t help feeling that – as a temporary measure – they’ll help fast-track some reform necessary to encourage involvement, and so are worth a shot. I therefore reluctantly find myself in favour. Recognising and addressing the issue is a vital first step, so here’s hoping that the outcome of quotas can prove that this is more than just tokenism, and will result in solid, positives outcomes for society as a whole.

Media still too quick and willing to stigmatise depression

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 31st March 2015.

It was difficult last week to miss coverage of the Germanwings plane crash that claimed 150 lives in the French Alps. A catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, it embodied every private fear we’ve all tried to bury when getting on a plane. The horror experienced by the 150 passengers on board as it dawned on them what was about to happen is the stuff of our worst nightmares, and the proximity of the tragedy undoubtedly cast a chill over us all.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz is now, sadly, a household name. Remarkable by his ordinariness, his Facebook page depicted him as a smiling, leather jacket-clad sportsman interested in travel, music, and clubs. Apparently popular, he appeared well-known and respected in his community. By all accounts, a perfectly normal young man who happened to fly planes for a living.

So what made Lubitz decide to commit, apparently out of the blue, such an abhorrent act of violence in such a calm and calculated manner?

The simple answer is that we don’t know. No-one could, at this point, claim to know with certainty. But at the time of writing, on Friday morning, the majority of the tabloid newspapers claimed to have the answer.

It was depression, they screamed. It emerged that Andreas Lubitz is said to have sought psychiatric help for “a bout of heavy depression” six years ago, which necessitated a break from his flight training. After he was cleared to resume he passed all subsequent tests – including psychological tests – with flying colours, and was subject to regular medical checks.

These last details appear to have been overlooked by many of the tabloids, who, high on outrage, published screaming headlines such as: “German who deliberately crashed Airbus had a long history of depression – so why was he let anywhere near a plane?”, “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?”, ”Depressed pilot crashed jet” and charmingly, “Cockpit maniac”.

While the families of the deceased should be prioritised and respected in the analysis of this disaster, responsible media reporting should not be overlooked, and the messages emanating from those headlines demonstrate that while we might think we have progressed when it comes to normalising mental health, ultimately, the willingness to stigmatise those with problems is never far away.

If depression is being touted as the primary reason for Lubitz’s actions, it any wonder there is still a reluctance to talk about mental health? In particular, is it any wonder that there is a particular reluctance to disclose mental health problems in the workplace? Nearly 6 in 10 people believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would negatively affect their career prospects. Reading headlines like this, is it any wonder?

Discourse like this perpetuates the damaging myth that those with mental illness are more likely to be violent. Should no-one who has suffered depression in their lifetime be permitted to hold positions with responsibility for the safety of other people? If that were the case, we’d have a lot of people sitting at home. As someone who has, should I be forbidden to get behind the wheel of a car, lest I get a murderous urge to plough it into someone? While everyone’s experience is different, many will understand that when depression strikes, it’s often about as much as you can do to get out of bed in the morning, let alone murder 150 people.

We can speculate endlessly on what drove Lubitz to do what he did. Mental health issues may have been a contributory factor, but it is impossible to attribute them as a cause.  Too frequently, when a violent act is committed, the tendency is to point to mental ill-health as the primary reason. And when the media presents it in such a way, it’s not just hurtful to those of us who have experienced problems, it’s damaging and it’s irresponsible. It’s also downright lazy.

At the time of writing, investigators claimed they had found a ‘clue’ in Lubitz’s home that might shed some light on why he did what he did. For the families and friends of the deceased, we can only hope that such answers are forthcoming. But they will be cold comfort.

 

Germanwings plane crash Alps memorial

Are you really entitled to your opinion?

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 3rd February 2014.

“It’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it.”

How often have you heard that conversation-killer trotted out during an argument? If you’re like me, hearing it will have the same effect as nails on a blackboard. It makes me wince, but then, I do love a good argument.

However, I have some news for you, opinionators. You’re more than entitled to your opinion – if you can defend it.

No longer confined to boring long-suffering friends or family in the pub or at the dinner table, modern communication channels ensure that the argumentative among us have soapboxes from which to orate all we like. (Whether anyone’s listening is another matter.) We’re accustomed to a variety of rants, whether about the government, sport, or the horror that is inadvertently biting into one of the coffee-flavoured Roses. No matter what our expertise, everyone has an opinion, and sure, we’re all entitled to them. But having them one thing. Considering the effects that stating them might have is another. That’s where we also have a responsibility.

Words are powerful. We should never underestimate them. We should also be aware of our audiences when using them. Sounding off about a local politician, for example on Facebook, sounds innocuous. After all, it’s your page, right? You’re entitled to your opinion, yes? But consider the effect your words might have on that politician’s family.

You don’t believe gay couples should be allowed to get married? That’s your opinion, of course. But can you explain why not? Because you think it will harm society? Have you evidence to support that? No? Well, my friend, perhaps you should examine your opinion in more detail. You might learn something about yourself.

An openness to having our opinions challenged is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democratic society. Unless you can provide an argument, saying “I’m entitled to my opinion” really implies “There’s no depth to my argument, and I can’t be bothered justifying it.” It’s self-entitlement to assume we can just say whatever we want, consequences be damned, regardless of whether or not we know what we’re talking about. It also suggests that we’re either too lazy or too closed-minded to contemplate the possibility that we might actually be wrong.

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“I’m entitled to my opinion” is frequently used to justify attitudes that should have been abandoned long ago like racism, sexism and homophobia. Without censoring – which may just drive these dangerous beliefs underground – we should instead calmly challenge them with facts and evidence.

In the context of public debate, scrutiny of ‘opinion’ helps to prevent the blurring of the line between it and ‘evidence’. For example, if someone argues for banning fluoridation in our water, despite a lack of scientific evidence that it’s harmful, it is in the public interest to challenge this opinion and debunk myths. The same applies to social and health issues. The media has responsibilities in this regard to ensure that evidence presented in debates is robustly interrogated, and in turn to ensure that when opinion is challenged, when necessary, it’s challenged by people qualified to do so. And we need to be sure that equivalence is not being granted as a rule between experts and non-experts in public policy debates.

Having our opinions challenged can be uncomfortable. Often, our views are so tied up with our self-identify that having them challenged can feel like personal criticism. But wouldn’t the world be a very dull and indeed dangerous place if we agreed on everything? And surely our opinions should evolve as we grow as human beings in age and maturity? If flaws in our thinking are pointed out, in an ideal world we really should try not to get immediately offended or angry (or in my case, sulk), and instead embrace the opportunity to learn. To that end, including subjects like philosophy on the curriculum is worthwhile, in order to foster thoughtfulness and an eagerness to construct, interrogate and defend arguments from a young age. And of course, to help us be comfortable with being wrong once in a while.

Changing your mind is not weakness. Refusing to open it is.

But there’s one thing on which I’ll never entertain a challenge. Those blasted coffee-flavoured Roses have got to go.

New Year, New Me? Let’s be realistic …

My New Year intentions, as published in The Mayo News last Tuesday 6th January. (I won’t comment on how I’m progressing …)

2015 goals in metal type

Every New Year’s Eve I get out the notepad and pen and sit with furrowed brow to try and come up with some realistic New Year’s resolutions. Every New Year’s Eve, I also look back 12 months to see how I’ve fared previously. The latter exercise usually serves as an annual reminder of what a failure I am and demonstrates that the former is nothing more a waste of a good hour of my life.

So for 2015, in order to avoid this painful and disappointing process I have thrown off the shackles of convention, liberated myself from the inevitable cycle of self-flagellation and decided not to make any resolutions for the next 12 months. The year, therefore already looks like one lacking in any ambition whatsover. But on the bright side, the December 31st review already looks promising by default.

New Years’ resolutions are an interesting exercise, though. It’s good to start with a heart and mind full of virtuous intentions, but it can be demoralising when you flounder mere days into the process, and the more you struggle, the more tempting it can be to throw in the towel early on. That said, it’s still good to have things to aim for, right? With this in mind, I’ve decided to cheat and set myself some aspirations for the year ahead. Aspirations are softer and more forgiving than resolutions, being as they are, little more than good intentions. They are also, of course, an absolute cop-out. But if there’s one thing I’m determined to do this year, it’s to not set myself up for further failures. So without further ado, I have below outlined some of my 2015 aspirations, so they may inspire you too.

For 2015, I aspire to …

… Take time out. At least 30 minutes daily, to walk/run outdoors, without music, screens or conversation. Going outdoors is of course fraught with such terrors as rain, low-flying pigeons and potential alien abductions but I’m told taking such time out works wonders for your physical and mental health, so on balance this is probably worth a try.

… Reach out more to others. We all have good intentions, but having personally felt a bit low heading into the Christmas festivities, it made a big difference when someone reached out to me. In the daily grind it’s easy to forget that those around us might have their own struggles, and a kind word might make all the difference. (The exception being if you’re a Meath or a Chelsea supporter on the bad side of a result, in which case I shall unashamedly take joy in your misery.)

… Be a better-behaved driver. This will essentially mean refraining from behaving like a deranged fishwife when someone else is a being bad driver in my vicinity. This is mostly for my own selfish benefit, to ultimately avoid expensive coronary interventional procedures, but also, charitably, for the benefit of innocent passengers who may unwittingly find themselves privy to such outbursts. (This aspiration would of course be unnecessary if you people would just USE YOUR INDICATORS.)

… Try more new things. In 2014 I tried Spanish, kickboxing and writing a newspaper column, with varying degrees of success, but each taught me something new, and some resulted in unintentional hilarity for others, so everyone’s a winner. (On that note, do keep an eye out for my new Morris Dancing column, coming soon.)

… Be a Better Loser. This means not sinking into bitterness and despair (again) for the winter when Mayo don’t win the All-Ireland. I’m obviously writing this in a shameless effort to reverse-psychology the hell out of the 2015 season. Having had lots of practice, I can cope with being wrong, so feel free to throw this in my face on 20th September. I’ll be too busy doing the congo around Croker to care.

I’ll keep you posted on my modest endeavours, but jesting aside, dear readers, all that remains is to wish you and yours a happy and healthy 2015. Be safe and be kind to each other, and – just as importantly – to yourselves. Here’s hoping it’s a good one for us all.

Bishops’ arguments against same-sex marriage don’t stack up

This article appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th December. 

Last weekend, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland distributed a 16-page document to all 1,300 parishes in the country, outlining their opposition to same sex-marriage, in light of the imminent referendum on same-sex marriage due to take place in Spring 2015. In this lengthy tome, the bishops suggested that same-sex marriage is contradiction in terms, because marriage, by its nature is a “committed relationship between and man and a woman which is open to the transmission of life.”

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Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The debate on same-sex marriage has been rumbling away in the background on social media and the airwaves over the past year and is set to ramp up after Christmas, when campaigning from both “sides” will begin in earnest. Let’s call a spade a spade; it hasn’t been pleasant to date, nor will it continue without causing considerate, disproportionate hurt to many. I can’t cover the entire discussion here, but some of the arguments are questionable, so within the constraints of this column let’s lay some facts on the table.

First things first – the same-sex marriage referendum is concerned with granting civil marriage to same-sex couples, not Catholic marriage. That’s an important distinction. While many wedding ceremonies take place in churches, those that don’t hold exactly the same legal footing – it’s all about that little piece of paper you sign at the end. (And of course, the small fee.) So while Catholic bishops are perfectly entitled to express their opinion on same sex-marriage, the passing of the referendum will – reasonably – not oblige the church to facilitate it.

Secondly, who defines marriage? It doesn’t fall within the Catholic Church’s remit to do so – in fact, claiming it is a little cheeky given its existence outside Catholicism, and given that the first recorded marriage contracts pre-date Jesus himself by about 600 years. Marriage can mean different things to different people – for some it’s about love, other about taxes (both equally troublesome, if you ask me). For more, it’s about children, for others it’s not. To suggest that procreation is central to marriage doesn’t reflect the reality of many marriages today, and is unfair, even hurtful to those married couples who don’t want children and those would love to have children, but can’t.

Children – the big one. One of the central tenets of the Catholic argument against same-sex marriage claims it could effectively “deprive children of the right to a mother and a father”. Now, let’s get this straight (no pun intended). This Referendum is not about parental rights. Many children currently don’t have a mother or father, or either. Others live in unsafe homes with both. Gay people routinely have children, gay couples in Ireland can foster children, and gay individuals can adopt children. The imminent Children and Family Relationships Bill provides for allowing same-sex couples in civil partnerships to jointly adopt, thus protecting those children should something happen to one parent, and is likely to be passed before the referendum takes place. And the obviously, unmarried people – gay, straight, whatever – have children all the time. So this argument simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on any level, I’m afraid.

Finally, for those who would suggest that civil partnership in its current form is sufficient protection for gay couples, there are over 160 statutory differences between it and civil marriage, many centering around finance, taxation, even the home.

The fact is, allowing lesbian and gay couples – our own families, friends and colleagues – to pledge their love and commitment, secure their futures and those of their children won’t change or affect any existing or future marriage of a man and a woman. Other people’s finances, family lives and bedroom activities are their own business – nothing to do with a Church that with all its own problems, can surely find something more constructive and Christian to do with its time. Ultimately, if you don’t like gay marriage, no-one is forcing you to have one. But if you believe in equality, it surely stands to reason that everyone should have the same opportunity to be miserable.

I’ll be voting ‘yes’. Will you?

Driving Me Round The Bend

Some useful tips to help you become a good driver, as published in the Mayo News on Tuesday 14th October.

I often wonder whose idea it was to start designating certain days and weeks as National Awareness ones. Whoever it was, I am truly grateful to them, because otherwise, I’d have nothing to write about. Last week was National Road Safety Awareness Week, so it feels timely to talk a little bit about driving.

Driving to me is a necessary evil; to be endured, not enjoyed. I do a lot of it, and because I am some kind of sadist who likes to make life as difficult as possible for myself, my commute takes me across Dublin city every morning, from Rathfarnham to Clontarf. This daily penance has made me wonder at times whether I am in fact actually Super Mario, trying to navigate a course with threats and obstacles appearing unexpectedly from all directions.

We all know bad driving, and sometimes we even drive badly ourselves, but I can confidently say that eight years of driving around Dublin has made me the best driver in the country, unlike everyone else around me. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you some useful lessons I have learned over the course of my driving career. Only when you have successfully mastered all of the below are you considered a competent driver on the country’s roads.

ONE: Headlights are installed on your car as a means of decoration, and occasionally, they can help you to see when driving at night. They are not, of course, in any way meant to help you be seen by other motorists. This is why, under no circumstances, should you use them on a wet day while travelling on a three-lane motorway at 100kmph. This might mean that other motorists attempting to change lanes actually  have a chance of seeing you. The key thing to remember about using your headlights is that as long as YOU can see where you are going, nothing else matters.

TWO: Indicators have a similarly decorative purpose, and are to be used at your own discretion. Times to consider using them could include: changing lanes on a motorway, exiting a roundabout (in this case, it doesn’t really matter which indicator you choose) when overtaking, and pulling out of a car parking space into moving traffic, but these are all optional. Most Irish drivers are telepathic and already know your intentions, so don’t feel under any obligation to help them out. (I often marvel at the fact that there is as yet, no universal hand signal for “USE YOUR BLASTED INDICATORS! I think I might invent one.)

THREE: It is a prudent and efficient use of your time to continue your grooming routine behind the wheel of your car on your morning commute. This can include, but is not limited to, applying a full face of makeup, plucking your eyebrows, squeezing your spots, shaving, or brushing your teeth. Paying attention to surrounding traffic is optional while you embark on this crucial process to ensure that the sight of your 8am face does not scare the living bejaysus out of your colleagues.

FOUR: Good news, cyclists! You are completely exempt from adhering to any of the Rules of the Road. In fact, just do the opposite of everything the rules say and you’ll be grand. In particular, be sure to treat red lights as drivers treat green ones, and in what is a growing trend, cycle to the right of traffic so that you have double the chance to be indignant when they fail to spot you where they would normally expect to see you.  Apply the logic behind tips 1 and 2 above to the use of bicycle lights and hand signals. And treat drivers as The Enemy. (I cycle myself, so this of course gives me the authority to be judgemental of and self-righteous about other cyclists.)

FIVE: When you occasionally break free of the city and head west, ensure to bring the exemplary driving habits you have learned with you to the streets of Ballina and Westport. What Mayo needs more than anything is an influx of angry, impatient drivers, rolling their eyes and giving out about hesitant tourists and elderly pedestrians. In particular (and this is tried and tested), when driving around the dual lane system that blights the bridges of Ballina, be sure to use your horn liberally at anyone who does not understand the term “lane discipline”. This will surely result in a positive outcome and endear you to your fellow drivers.

So now that you have absorbed all of the above, you should now in theory be one of the best and safest drivers in the country. Off you go, do the opposite of everything I have written above and remember, once you are behind the wheel, you are never, ever wrong.

Happy motoring!

driving and shaving