Tag Archives: heber rowan

From top: A scene from Season 2 of For All Mankind; Heber Rowan

The recent conclusion of Apple TV’s “For all Mankind” highlighted the potential for war in space. Yeah, you read that right. Space wars.

So without giving spoilers of the excellent series, I’d like to take a moment to discuss space policy and what it means for us going forward. I will examine the questions of ‘is it worth it?’ and what a colonised Mars would mean.

Donald Trump’s presidency created a new branch of the US military, The Space Force. Now to my mind that just sounds ridiculous. Space exploration is a broad international effort based on collective interest in progressing our fortunes among the stars. At least that is what I have been raised to believe looking at the shuttle launches as a child and equally enthralled as an adult watching the developments at SpaceX.

We are getting there, among the stars that is. It’s not over the top to say that with rocket technology and artificial intelligence improving people are getting hopeful. With most eyeballs focused on America’s space programme not China’s, we are rolled up into the idealistic soft power image of America being the place with the best and brightest.

Sadly, in noting that, I am reminded of the ‘Victorian Summer’ of the antebellum period in which western society believed in the progressive development of technology as something that would inherently end all future suffering. How wrong that idea was…

What’s the worth?

The problems of society’s inequality and tackling climate change are a challenge. Can we have equality, growth and reduce our impact on the environment. The standard answer is: no.

Instead of looking at Earth’s direct issues, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are now looking to the stars and aiming for a multi-planetary expansion of humanity. Inspirational perhaps. Personally, I love the idea of ‘pushing the envelope’ and doing more with the motivation of a scientific transcendence that is space travel.

Though it reminds me of the person who goes off for a ‘gap year’ wandering in south east Asia thinking that a bit of travelling will solve all of their underlying personal problems by the ‘horizon opening’ of travel. While the novelty of travel can be great for a period, eventually what was once new, can become dull, familiar.

Looking at the complexities of the problems our children will face, we have to think of ‘our own houses in order’. That to invest the efforts of great minds building rockets and trillions in the pursuit of space, we have to stop and think about getting our Earth working well first. Not easy.

Yes, going to space provides us with a valuable external goal that inspires others to search for more and do more than plain old earth can manage, yet I’d argue it would be great if the benefits weren’t also additions to a military industrial complex. That said, there are technological innovations from the blue sky research that is space exploration. Sometimes the demand for immediate results stymies innovation.

That said: don’t kid yourself, Elon Musk is invariably helping the hegemony of America to stay the master of the skies. To take an international relations angle that is. Joe Biden has not disbanded the new ‘Space Force’ and I doubt he will. There is too much to gain by ripping up the outer space treaty of the UN and viewing the juicy asteroids as ‘terra nullis’ mines ready for exploitation. These are the things that matter for the next century. At the current rate of development, I believe it could well be possible for such a development. The rubble of one is currently on its way back to Earth only recently.

To green Mars or not? That is the trillion dollar question.

Essentially, it’s about deciding if there is something intangible and sacred about Mars left as it is or terraforming it for humanity’s benefit. In the famous Mars trilogy of hard science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson depicted that very debate in detail showing those in the ‘Red Mars or Green Mars’ camps fighting out over keeping Mars as it is or changing it.

I’d argue that when we consider the future politics of space travel and military policy, not caring about polluting another planet with our germs and terraforming is a big deal. The debate might take 50 years for it to properly happen, though I believe it is going to happen eventually the way we are headed. So we should start talking about it. Now.

Even if life isn’t found on Mars, there is still the fundamental question to be asked about the morality and indeed the economics of it all. Is it actually worth it on so many levels rather than just a ‘we do it because it is hard’ attitude. Wiser minds will undoubtedly examine these very questions philosophically and ethically in the years to come.

Elon Musk suggested that the polar ice caps of Mars could be melted with a nuclear detonation in order to start the change in the atmosphere to allow human colonisation of the planet. As cool as that would be to see in some ways… it is something else to have a billionaire get their hands on weapons of mass destruction in the name of ‘the greater good’. Troubling.

The aforementioned outer space treaty of the UN prevents nation states and private companies from getting unique control on celestial bodies. Essentially, we all have to share whatever is out there and do what we can to share what we learn in the process of discovering how to get there in the first place.

The protection of life is built into it all also so that’s why the Mars rover and any other craft landing among the heavens undergoes a sterilisation procedure. No germs, no trace of Earth’s life to save whatever life big or small might be there. There indeed could also be a risk of exotic germs coming back to Earth and killing many.

When we weigh up the long term survival of the human race on Earth against upholding a principle of not harming another planet and its potential life, many figure, it is not worth it. Nuke those icecaps!

It is the argument essentially that we can’t hope for biological equilibrium on Earth with the standard of living that we have now against the draw of a blank canvas. A ‘red one’ if you will.

Though as we all know, the best of intentions can often have the worst of outcomes. If you stop the rehabilitation of an ill person by feeding them in bed everyday, one day they might find that they can no longer walk. Good intentions can be harmful, just like too much bedside feeding of that ill person.

There is so much that will and can change in the next 50 years. The prospect of a multi-planetary society can be a reality with the right motivation and resources put behind it. Thousands even millions may want to go to this new horizon with the vigour of adventure.

The inherent value of a dusty planet seems hard to compare to green Earth. Even while it is treated as a doormat. In writing this, I am reminded of the clarion call for environmental protection by Chief Seattle in his letter to US President Pierce:

‘If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect, all are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know the sap that courses through the tree as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us.’

The new society

If we colonise Mars and have private space companies mine its surface, we may devalue the dust of Mars itself by seeking a price from it. Yes, getting to Mars is going to be extremely expensive, hazardous and something those who pay for it all will want some profit from it.

Mars could in time be its own country and society. Only time will tell. The main thing is how it gets started. What principals and ideals are instilled in those who will one day call it home when robots become redundant on its surface? If commercial or national interests get ahead of any spirit of international cooperation and a value for Mars being left as ‘red’.

Trade between Earth and Mars could benefit both though once the balance tips as Mars becomes self reliant, if possible, conflict may ensue. The US ‘Space Force’ may be engaged to fight on the dusty surface of Mars to stop a Martian independence movement. Right now, such thoughts are the subject of science fiction novels though not without a basis in probability as we look forward.

Earth has, in my view, yet to have its watershed moment of a complete systems change for environmental change and a genuine hunger for immediate all hands on deck, drive to colonise Mars. Speeches by Greta Thunberg can only do so much. So this debate of the principals of being a ‘green martian’ or ‘red’ are academic for now. We aren’t going there yet. Indeed it may be 2030 before there are boots on Mars.

Though if this question can do anything for us now, it is the thought provoking aspect of what is it that we value on Earth and idealistically if we could create a new society elsewhere, what would it be like?

As we get out our telescopes and eye the frosty red ball that is Mars, we dream of a different world. The reality is though any new society we make there will be shaped heavily by the one it came from. Flawed.

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Pic via Apple TV

From top: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; Heber Rowan

‘…$13,000,000,000. If all those 000s are making your eyes go funny, I’ll spell it out: thirteen billion. That’s how much Jeff Bezos added to his net worth in one day last July after the pandemic caused Amazon’s stock price to surge….According to a report by Oxfam, the combined wealth of the world’s 10 richest men increased by $540bn since March 2020…

The world’s 10 richest people made $540bn in a year – we need a greed tax (Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian)

About now we are facing the idea of some people entering the ‘four commas’ club, ie. Trillionaires. More wealth than we can imagine, more than Standard Oil of its day or Amazon today.

A question is raised from this: do the mega rich have a moral or societal obligation to grant their wealth away in philanthropy? Or should countries tax them personally to ensure that their accumulation of wealth manages to decrease wealth inequalities?

The Gini Coefficient as an indicator of international inequality paints a harrowing picture. While most wealth is in shares owned within companies beyond personal taxation, we have to look at the effectiveness of taxation as it stands and how often the super wealthy enter into philanthropy as a means of keeping their social standing.

Indeed with the massive profits some firms have gained from the COVID-19 pandemic the UK and Ireland have considered imposing extra ‘pandemic profits’ taxes along with the IMF. It begs the question: what is fair profit? Namely, how rich can people get without a significant onus to redistribute that wealth either through taxes or through philanthropy.

Yes, extraordinary crisis (like pandemics) create opportunities to generate extraordinary profits, though at what point do we determine it to be too much, unfair or wrong? Amazon saw a 37% increase in its profits or for the new blue chip company Zoom, over 4,000%.

Indeed there have been many great philanthropic efforts and initiatives in the past. Dublin city owes a lot of its social housing to the Iveagh Trust of the Guinness family and the Carnegie Trust in the UK. The efficacy of philanthropy boils down to this, can you trust the effectiveness of government to deliver social impacts or do you trust those who have been fortune or innovative enough to generate profit?

Given the systems and controls in place with government expenditure, it is in part, perceived that philanthropy can be more effective than government. There is considerable debate about the issue given the tax breaks that charitable donations give. Though there is the argument that it is a manifestation of the politics of others with means. 

The question of innovation

Some have a lot, others don’t. It is that simple.

Whatever you want to say about a Pareto principle in place or the structural inequalities of an economic system, we could politically deem what are ‘ok levels of wealth’ or too much.

Generally speaking most politicians are only too happy to have jobs from billionaires investing in their areas to complain, they need such a power base. As the mega rich also know that at the end of the day, they can rely on the threat of capital flight from a country to prevent a single nation state from getting ambitions of ‘a maximum wage’ or higher taxes on investments.

The OECD has been working for over a decade on anti avoidance measures in tax harmonisation but have been bogged down by continued opposition and the difficulties of a global system unable to make dramatic changes. While indeed a lot has been done through the BEPs anti-avoidance measures, we as a planet don’t act as a single unit too often. That’s not great. 

Especially when we come out of a once in a century crisis of a pandemic that inevitably causes deep changes in society. Something’s gotta give. 

The larger companies and the billionaires might argue that they are permitting innovation due to their purchasing power. Indeed, some visual examples of innovation in this decade amaze and horrify us deeply such as the Boston Dynamics robots having a dance. Though a considerable amount of innovation is stymied from the need to get immediate results for investment, sometimes known as the ‘Last Mile’ problem.

McKinsey reckons that most innovation this past year has been with the pharmaceutical companies, no surprise there, the issue is how can innovation still happen sustainably if so many people are getting insanely wealthy.

So when we have billionaires potentially becoming Trillionaries, we need to stop and ask ourselves, can we get more done by working cooperatively via governments not competitively in free markets.

Let’s ask another question; how long will it be before we stop enjoying the innovations of the companies of the super wealthy, like the latest smartphones, before philanthropy will be deemed to be not enough? 

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.


From top: A March 2021 parliamentary question and answer on Election observations; Heber Rowan

In 2020, I noticed that there were over fifty different parliamentary questions on many separate occasions about Ireland’s overseas election monitors. These volunteer roles were seen as non-essential and were stopped during the lockdown on public health grounds. The questions on it continue this year, I think we should ask why that’s the case and what it says about our system of parliamentary questions.

Election monitoring

Election monitoring internationally is about ensuring that elections are conducted fairly and according to the democratic norms of fairness and the rule of law. Monitoring is an important study into the process of the election. It can highlight the strength of independence in civil society and the freedom of the press.

The reports of an election being fair or not has implications for international diplomacy and trade. Least of all, it can form part of local acceptance of a transfer of power and was even noted as a consideration in the 2020 US election. Indeed the objectivity of some observation missions has been critiqued in the past, though it is fair to say that in general, monitoring is trusted and respected. Ireland’s monitors take part in EU and OSCE missions all over the world.

Monitoring amid COVID

Now, it is reasonable to say preventative measures need to be put in place to protect the health of the experts and volunteers. The easiest way of doing that would be to stop them from travelling altogether and prevent COVID-19 from spreading further across international boundaries. When one considers the use of mandatory quarantine in place in some countries, it makes some sense that monitoring will be held back.

However, during the lockdowns essential work did continue in a variety of industries and domestically volunteers took part in COVID-19 testing centre assistance for example. Many people donated their time and energies for great causes for the benefit of all. However, international volunteering ended.

While for a time the denial of observation missions struck me as a signal that reviewing the democratic accountability of elections in other jurisdictions was a luxury, not a necessity… I could see the point on health grounds temporarily. Though it concerns me the longer international travel is curtailed.

All of it reminds one of the importance of understanding declared values versus revealed action. Action speaks louder. International cooperation is at the heart of how countries make their independence respected via adherence to democratic norms. It should resume sooner rather than later with the appropriate testing systems in place if it is deemed as essential to international relations.

The costs of parliamentary questions

With so many parliamentary questions on the same issue asked I am boggled. Either many members of the Irish parliament have the same opinion on this matter as mine or they are being lobbied by those on the monitoring panel seeking observation missions at elections. I’m inclined to believe it is the latter. While the costs are a day to day part of the running of a democracy so many on the exact same question is alarming. Let’s not forget that each question can effectively cost hundreds of euro to obtain an answer for and some TDs have been criticised in the past for asking an inordinate amount of questions.

That said, many questions being asked show that the TDs are very active for their constituents and are proactive in their approach to policy development. Though with so many on the same issue… perhaps another solution could be found?

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Image: KildareStreet


From top: Nurse Joan Love with the AstraZeneca jab at the HSE Vaccination Centre in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin; Heber Rowan

There are several vaccines being used to combat the COVID 19 pandemic. Their names will be fixed in our minds for years to come, like family houses in Game of Thronesm as they fight for control of the COVID virus.

This week the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was ‘paused’ in the USA and there has been concern raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine being harmful to roughly one in a million people from blood cloths. One in a million is a risk that generally, for most other medicines, is
determined as a reasonable one, because you have to weigh up the benefits. Ultimately asking, what serves more people than does harm?

Often cited at the moment is the higher risk of blood clots from birth control medication, people decide that it’s worth more to bear that risk than not have the use of it. The same goes for the vaccines. That said, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) knew that in pausing the roll out of the AstraZeneca vaccine they would assuage the fears of those with concerns about such side effects. However as we consider the speed of the roll out program and the continued damage with the lockdowns: was that worth it?

People make decisions based on weighing up of risks. We have in society, a way of keeping to our risk equilibrium. The normal level of risk you accept in your day to day life.

As an example, it’s been found that if you drive without a seatbelt, statistically you will drive slower. If you know that seatbelts will reduce harm you might drive a little faster, because you work towards your risk equilibrium. You feel a sense of what’s the risk you can take and what you can’t. It’s different for many folks, Formula 1 drivers certainly have a different sense of what type of risk is OK for them and what’s not than you or I.

The issue is how risk is felt.

Simply knowing the factors that cause risk or danger is based on our exposure to awareness of that danger. If you wear a seatbelt you will find it more straightforward to figure out what the risk is of not wearing it actually is. That’s different to a new type of medicine made in extraordinary circumstances with cutting edge science. You have to rely on the trusted sources of information or experts to determine if taking them is a risk worth having.

And that is why in my opinion, the fear associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine is over the top. People are concerned that they might be the one in a million case that receives, a potentially lethal side effects. The media has grabbed on to a story that has interest and “legs to run on”. People want to know more about it.

The science is there. The risk is there too but it’s a remote one. Significantly less so than NOT taking it.

Attempting to reconcile why there is such a concern goes further though. It can be argued that the fallout from the much discredited link between autism and vaccines by Andrew Wakefield is a cause. People fear that they will be the unlucky ones because they hear more about the negative stories than they do about the humdrum stories of lives changed and improved by vaccines. It’s not perfect but it works.

People in fear will share their stories and others will share those stories because we find it easier to understand a story than scientific data. That’s why in conversations we will often talk about the lives of others than ideas or facts. People have stories and we are attuned to find them interesting because it’s easier to relate to.

An over abundance of caution.

Now I think we’re moving forward with an abundance of caution. Too much. This is not good because when it comes to dealing with working to speed, working as fast as possible to get a removal of the social distancing restrictions in society. It slows that down. Lives will be lost and damaged from the societal harms of seemingly never-ending lockdowns.

You have to be efficient and effective to make sure that treatment strategies work, knowing while it will not work for everyone, it will get things done where it counts. Reducing harm and saving lives.

Much of the debate about vaccines is also influenced by the humility that scientists working in their fields generally have. They know that they can often be wrong, that new evidence can end decades of a working hypothesis in an instant. So this is where we are at. A medicine held back because of too much caution.

As we can see with Israel’s relative end of COVID cases, life going back to a relative normal there. That matters and vaccines matter.

The lack of common sense

This week there has been a partial reopening of Ireland with schools back to relative normality and construction work picking up where it left off months ago.

This is welcome though with a look at recent debates on the Claire Bryne live show and on the radio, you’d wonder at the adage that “common sense isn’t common”.

Sam McConkey said recently that the restrictions could go on for 3-5 years. Crazy stuff in my opinion to even conceive of that.

Small businesses up and down Ireland are crying out for a return to normality and the idea of years of further restrictions is unconscionable. Click and collect services for instance are currently banned and while some pubs sell take away drinks, they are unable to allow patrons to use their bathrooms. Surely if it is deemed safe enough to sell take away drinks, it would be safe enough to allow for the use of bathrooms?

On Monday’s edition of Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ One the issue of Portaloos was discussed as a possible solution as we enter the warmer summer months. The matter of increased costs running such outdoor facilities was brushed over with no substantial analysis of current policy when it has been found that only 0.1% of cases are transmitted outdoors.

The brush with significant danger has passed by with the vaccine roll out assisting those most at risk. It’s time for a dose of common sense and less fear of making mistakes.

Let’s end the lockdown.

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.


From top: US President Joe Biden on a call with Taoiseach Micheál Martin yesterday; Heber Rowan

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s day. The great and glorious international celebration of the grassroots, shamrocks and greenery of Irish diplomacy. A privileged position.

Around the world, despite an international pandemic, this day was marked. In green.

When we consider the 193 countries around the world whose national days are often unnoticed by most of us around the world. The Irish are special.

You’ve heard that before and will have to keep hearing it. Why? It’s tradition.

So what is a tradition, in light of so many aspects of it being paused or as many feared ended with the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in last year’s celebrations similarly, cancelled? In fundamental terms, it is a thing you do, sometimes with others; repeatedly. There is a unique power to that.

Why does that matter? Well as the old Aristotelian saying goes “We are what we repeatedly do”. If you run often, you are ‘a runner’. If you watch football often you are a ‘football fan’ and indeed if you drink a lot of pints… very often, you can become ‘pint man’.

Tradition has its own power and significance. If you keep doing it, consistently, persistently: that matters. Good habits and bad. International celebrations of nationality and craic alike. It’s why religions put a lot of store in doing the same things every day or every week. It changes and develops you as a person and collectively, changes a culture.

People around the world will find any reason they want to drink any other day of the week if they feel like it. At least Ireland’s soft power is manifested in a toast to the Irish. The tradition is valued, and thus the Irish are valued.

The shamrock trade

The past couple of weeks, we saw a considerable discussion about permitting the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin to attend the traditional St. Patrick’s day celebration with the US President in Washington. Like many talks nowadays, the discussion probably began with their aids asking each other, ‘can you hear me? or ‘are you muted?’. Virtually.

The fear of  breaking the tradition, of meeting in-person to exchange a bowl of shamrock and all of the events that go on around Capitol Hill by having a virtual meeting, was that it would be once changed, forever changed.

No matter which leader has occupied either office for the past number of decades, the shamrock trade is up there with the 12.5% corporate tax rate. Prime directives of the state to uphold. Few get the chance to meet so often and so prominently. As indeed there are potential votes to be had from it for both. It’s a win-win.

However, with Joe Biden potentially being the last of the old-school Irish-American Democrats on the block to reach the White House, the fear is there that in time to come, the shamrock trade will end. Yes, all traditions eventually end in their own way, by neglect or by decision and that is something a future Irish government will have to deal with. At least in 2021, it continued.

We have no similar tradition with any other country that comes to mind that goes anywhere near the same scale of what the Washington shamrock trade means for the Irish state. But one day, St. Patrick’s day could become like all other international celebrations of national holidays. Something to note only if you have a personal stake.

Joe Biden told the BBC after he got elected “I’m Irish”, sending chills down the backs of those in Downing Street thinking that Brexit means all international agreements are now totally open season. That said, such a connection doesn’t seem like it will win Ireland any trade wars with the UK over Brexit and the vaccine trade any time soon.

According to The White House:

“We’re certainly aware that there are disagreements at the moment between the UK and the EU in the implementation of that. We view that as a trade issue to be resolved between the UK and the EU, and hope that both sides are able to return to the table and discuss the implementation of the agreement.”

Getting something from the meeting

Ireland wants and very much needs the Good Friday peace agreement to remain in place. The gun is kept out of Irish politics and life in Northern Ireland because of it. That’s the big item agenda of any talks between Ireland and America undoubtedly.

The other big concern is if Ireland could be in a position strong enough to get its own extra supply of surplus vaccines from America, by asking for it. The temerity to ask and then get them would be a big manifestation of Ireland’s gentle touch with America. A powerplay.

This does need to be mentioned, could asking for such supplies hinder Ireland’s hopes of keeping the tradition of the shamrock trade alive when the Irish-American lobby may become reduced in years to come with demographic changes?

Or would American foreign direct investment in Ireland and other interests still warrant that unique relationship between both?

The longer-term efforts of keeping peace in Northern Ireland are an easy win that plays to the message that America is a force of good in the world. That its hegemony has peaceful dividends.

A short term effort of giving Ireland more vaccines is a harder political sell for the White House. China is, inevitably going to supplant America on many levels and  there have been no significant efforts to get the Russian vaccine used in Ireland. Ireland knows that because of the EU and US relationship being stronger than others, it can ask for things like vaccines from the US.

Yet, the short answer Ireland received yesterday was a polite no. The matter will be ‘monitored’ for now. Joe said no.

Greener pastures

St. Patrick’s day this year between Ireland and America was still marked with a degree of celebration. The meeting went ahead and buildings internationally were lit in green.

Sadly what gives the tradition its very power for all of us around the world is the getting together. Dancing, parading in the streets, and having a good day out. Times Square was showing Irish dancing on the big video screens but sadly few were there to see it in person.

Hopefully, this will all just be a note of historical novelty as future generations of our international diaspora will keep alive the power of tradition. in person.

Let’s ‘keep her lit!’ (in green).

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Earlier: Heber on Tomorrow Tonight

There needs to be a long term solution for pensions and digital currencies, argues Heber Rowan (above)

This post will concentrate on the Irish circumstances of pensions and current regulation. As discussed recently in the Irish Times, there is the proverbial ‘pension cliff’ facing society as the demographic ‘bomb’ of an ageing population faces up to the massive costs involved in maintaining the status quo.

In any conversation about pensions, we need to think of them in the modern context, reflecting on the time in which they were created by Bismarck. Back then in 1881 for every retired person (65 years of age bar some public servants at 40) there were fewer people actually living to retirement age. Not anymore.

Properties as pensions

So when we consider where a lot of money goes in our society, most of it is towards houses, property etc. “As safe as houses” goes the phrase, it is a bad thing for the macroeconomy though an understandable one. Yet homes shouldn’t be investments, they should just be homes.

When you get down to it, the possibility of renting after retirement is not feasible and the emotional security that a home offers is the critical thing. So all of your available money gets invested into it via a mortgage. As you get an imputed value from it, ie. the equivalent value from living in it that you get from not renting, you effectively are able to draw down on it as a pension fund. So that matters, not even getting into the other living costs and how it might be estimated at being when you reach a certain age. Moreover, when you look at the relative stability in house prices in the year that was…2020, it is clear that it is a store of value. An investment asset.

Tax treatment of pensions

With so many tax benefits going towards personal retirement savings accounts, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to make a state pension fund which operated differently? What if instead of people placing investment funds into funds that have low overall returns, they were given the option to use a broader range of financial instruments. Like a cryptocurrency.

Now, I know what you are thinking. Scams, volatile and overall… a bad idea. Though when we consider the colossal financial burdens the state will have from meeting existing pension obligations, somethings got to change.

As a state, we need to encourage people to start their pensions early and in turn, gather taxes to pay for people’s pensions. Superannuations or pensions schemes from our employers too could even change in the future as the world’s financial system changes. And it will change, that’s the only thing we can be certain of, just not how it does.

Now, with Bitcoin reaching over $50,000 things are getting serious. Yes, as an asset class, the fundamental risk involved is anathema to any traditional pension fund management strategy, though with the changing nature of money in the future, we have to be open to other opportunities.

Digital currency pension

So what if a digital currency was allowed to be used as a pension fund for the longer term? Of course, pension funds are in the interests of decades, a lifetime of savings for the end of your life and cryptocurrencies are a short term merry go round. A fast buck. Though it could be different. The conversation could be different.

Pensions, cash and oh so much in fifty years time may be all very different. Technology has moved at an extraordinary pace and we have can’t simply imagine the range of changes. Though if we set the ideas out now, we can at least plan for some of them.

As it stands, in Germany, Slovenia and Portugal longer-term savings in cryptocurrencies are not taxed. They are considered ‘private money’ in some jurisdictions. While in Ireland they are charged at the standard CGT or capital gains tax of 33%. Now that makes sense in many regards, as ultimately it’s a tax on people making money from money.

Though given the high level of tax relief that is already granted to pension savings, perhaps it is time we considered different options. Solutions to look at our digital future and the nature of how we care for the elderly.

We have to start thinking differently about these issues that simply won’t go away no matter how badly we want them to. Wishful thinking is bad in public policy. So lets experiment. While you might argue that policymakers don’t always get it right, that bad policy can have life or death consequences. Yet, if we keep doing the same thing again and again, it’s madness. Pensions have to change or the pension age will have to jump. That’s reality. One or the other.

A potential solution?

The Irish central bank or the European central bank could create a currency of its own for the purposes of future pension funds to be used as a tradable asset among member states or just among Irish domiciled individuals.

To stop people just using it for quick cash, a minimum of ten years could be set up much in the same way Irish prize bonds do at the moment. Like prize bonds, the funds could be used to fund the running of the country and the proceeds could be drawn down tax-free if the right controls are met.

At the moment, in some ways, it is already happening. The OSCE found that there was about $18.75 trillion held in US pension funds in 2019 and now some of that money is likely already in digital currencies via the hedge funds which manage them. There is a reason the market cap of Bitcoin is comparable to traditional gold now. That money is going somewhere and many think it’s “the moon”.

Other funds like Nexo have arisen to provide dividends for investments in digital currencies too and for some undoubtedly, it is their private pension instrument. Part of the issue, however, is liability protection. Many fear online exchanges could become hacked or bankrupt like the infamous MTGOX exchange or BTC-E are unlikely to trust online exchanges as a result.

If you invest money in an EU bank at present, €100,000 is covered under the deposit guarantee scheme or a max of €20,000 in a brokerage trading firm for example. Though it is being seriously considered by those working in the industry and if reports are correct with hedge funds pushing into digital currencies: it is only a matter of time. 

Bluesky thinking

Having said all of that, this is just an idea. There is a lot that could be great with it or wrong from the law of unintended consequences. We must imagine solutions to these issues broadly and holistically. Where would our money go in the future, where would we like to use it? Housing loans to grow on? Anti-poverty schemes and solutions? A fund for reunifying the island of Ireland? There is a lot we can do when we all get together and chip in.

As continued quantitative easing or printing money, continues in earnest by the European Central Bank, especially after the COVID-19 crisis, the value of fiat currencies dilutes. Value is what we determine it is. Relative. The same goes for any asset, stock or currency for that matter. Though your future peaceful years of dotage, your pension — ‘is priceless’. “For everything else” as the ad goes… there are other… options.

So let’s do something different with our pension systems and think of alternative ways forward because the state pension as it is, might not last forever. 

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

From top: Green Party Leader and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, who recently  performed a U-turn on the €58m Coonagh to Knockalisheen Road following an online campaign against the project; Heber Rowan

Effective political campaigns are hard. Often the decisions about what policies get changed are made on the basis of grassroots policy campaigning, asking for changes to something specific. That matters. In this essay, I will discuss online campaigning in Ireland.

Politics is defined by what and who complain effectively. The ‘why’ too.

The squeaky wheel that makes the most noise, gets the most grease”, is often throw out in many refrains. It’s true though. Expressing a desire for action, change in a specific and measurable way consistently achieves change. Of course, not all the time and not for all things. Some problems like climate change, are fundamentally complex to solve given the many areas of life that would be impacted by dramatic policy action.

What often happens is that when a strategic group of concerned stakeholders are together in a form an alliance they often get what they want. Especially if they know what they are doing in the whole process that is.

In Ireland, we can often see that manifest as local resident groups getting together and highlighting their complaints about a local building development for example. They get together and tell their political representatives at local and national levels, ‘this matters to us and please pay attention to it or we won’t for you again in the future’. Now while planning decisions are decided by An Board Pleanala, getting the support of politicians to advise, vocalise and highlight their objections does matter. It politically matters.

While ministers in the government often feel comfortable enough on the back of their existing local political capital and support to withstand the price of making decisions in the national interest, they are always aware of who’s complaints to listen to most. As ultimately their skill at getting a sense of who they should listen to politically, helped get them in a position of political power in the first place. Next, the ability to discern why certain people or stakeholders should be heard matters. Who votes, who doesn’t vote and who would vote again.

We saw this back in 2008 when 15,000 Irish pensioners protested on the streets about the potential loss of their free medical cards. They were angry, clear in what they wanted and vocal. A quick U-turn occurred soon after the protests occurred as stressed parliamentary assistants told their deputies of the visceral protests they received. That’s politics, it responds because when not only enough people but certain people get together and fight for their representation. Indeed, a recent example on a smaller scale is the U-turn by transport minister Eamonn Ryan regarding a Limerick Motorway. This is normal stuff.

In campaigns, it’s about a balance the quality of your ask (is it clear and understandable) and the number of supporters. Is it tailored and single minded? i.e. not complicated.

So the reason I’m noting all of that is due to the restrictions the COVID-19 placed on public protests, political activism changed. In 2020, the reduced opportunities to protest in public made people change their approaches to campaigning. Yes, some protests still happened but the mass numbers on the streets didn’t happen in the traditional fashion. Like everything, things moved more online.

So for members of the Oireachtas, in any given day they receive a wide range of correspondence from the public, lobbyists and stakeholders of all sorts. They receive word of the ‘squeaky wheels’ by email, tweets, snail mail, calls, texts at all hours of the day. Their inboxes are public property. Too right, as it is their job to listen to what people are saying on many different issues and represent those views in the legislative authority of the land.

That said, how those communications or correspondence is delivered does matter. We’d have to have a formal survey or study on the matter in-depth to understand it more definitively from the politicians’ point of view, however, one might assume that the more personalised the correspondence, the more likely it will be responded to or acted upon.

A handwritten letter or a detailed email with clear evidence about an issue in need of representation takes time and effort to do. That gets noticed and if 10 or 1,000 people in the same day do the same on the same issue… you could bet it will get discussed.

The effective number of how many emails on an issue, how often or in what manner is a matter for research but from the public’s point of view having increased opportunities to support a cause matters. That is why organisations such as Uplift.ie and change.org have featured online ways of linking automated emails and pre-composed social media posts to great effect for a wide range of campaigns.

Many other organisations have created their own online methods for contacting TDs by linking handy constituency maps with their emails. The Wheel, the charities body used one for their budget campaign and public submissions on legislative consultations are facilitated by such methods. In essence, this lowers the costs of engaging in politics outside of elections. Accessible.

A recent tweet (above) by independent TD Cathal Berry (since deleted), expressed his frustration at receiving many emails from online campaign platforms. That rightly pissed a lot of people off, dismissing their interest in raising issues.

While on one hand, it is unsurprising that members of parliament receive a large amount of mail and sifting through them all takes time, but that is why they have staff to assist them. It goes with the territory of the job that they must receive petitions of concern on issues. Squeaky wheels are annoying though not until you put the grease where it is needed.

So going forward longer-term, there clearly will be more methods of campaigning even if COVID-19 didn’t happen. It is part of the process of changing methods of political participation. If postcards being mailed ‘cut the mustard’ in terms of getting results well that’s unfortunate because each individual campaign email sent represents someone saying, help change this.

The methods shouldn’t matter the most, the issues should.

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Earlier: Heber Rowan on Tomorrow Tonight


From top: Golfgate casualty, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen, Labour Party leader Alan Kelly maskless on the Luas and anti-gay Hungarian MP Jozsef Szajer, who was involved in a gay orgy. Heber Rowan

Let’s discuss making mistakes in politics, how it matters and why we should consider approaching mistakes differently.

On the dating site OkCupid there are many thousands of questions they ask to build up your dating profile. Among the answers to one about doing something naughty is the answer, ‘no thanks I might want to run for office one day’. There is a reason most would avoid such a question entirely. This is not just a reflection on dating or politics but on society as a whole.

It is argued that politics is the enterprise of leadership. Inspiring others to particular points of view and working hard for causes that they believe in. We like to believe that the leaders we choose mirror our best qualities, that higher moral standards are taken by them.

Sometimes that happens and we all collectively benefit from the wisdom imparted onto us all by their leadership for generations to come. That matters. Fundamentally, when we elect others to positions of power, we do so because they represent our interests because they say what we want them to say and indeed: do.

These things matter for the world. They matter in terms of what we view as not only acceptable but celebratory to the echelons of power. They are people at the end of the day. People with families, friends and personal lives of their own. Some new politicians complain that as soon as they get elected, they become public property. Called up by the frustrated, angry and desperate constituents at all hours of the day. It’s a hard job no doubt.

What matters is that when their personal lives end up becoming their public lives as well, there are problems. Sex scandals in American politics are the classic ‘go-to’ to illustrate this among the many salacious examples of impropriety that there can be. While in French politics, in particular, no one cares.

As an example in Irish politics, you can be imprisoned for up to six months before you are disqualified from holding office. Other than that, bankruptcy is the only thing that legally removes a politician from their seat or prevents them from getting elected in the first place. Correct me if I’m wrong on that. The standards in many different countries differ but the general aspect of it all is that the public gets to decide what is permissible and what is not.

The questions we ask ourselves sometimes looking at a ballot paper are along the lines of ‘do I care about what personal stuff went on with them when in the end, they served my interests?’ or ‘this one broke the law, should I care?’.

Elections are snapshots in time of the value statements of the body politic. Sometimes candidates who value particular social values get highly regarded over others but then in others, voters act according to their interests. Do they see their local area served in the ways they want? Do they get ‘the job done’? It’s hard when dreams, of course, face up the grim realities of compromise and horse-trading. Not all can be done, though some things can at least.

The issue at the heart of it all does a scandal in the media go on long enough for people to have their belief in the competency of the party collectively or politician individually to do their job, harmed. This matters.

This year amid all of the many scandals about politicians breaking COVID-19 rules and social restrictions in at minor ways or major ways. The right wing Hungarian MEP found in a sex party is a particularly extraordinary example of such mistakes… Political hypocrisy has a power to get us filled righteous anger or schadenfreude demanding retribution.

Some politicians this year clearly took a long time in realising that in fact, they weren’t indispensable or politically free from career-ending opprobrium. That could be argued to not only be a fault of their egos but a deep-seated fear of admitting that they made a mistake. This is because often in politics we are unforgiving as an electorate and as a society about those who say ‘I screwed up, I was wrong’.

Policy failures in particular are arguably more consequential than any personal impropriety like an extra-marital affair. The Irish banking guarantee of 2008 is an example of where politicians had to admit afterwards, that they got it wrong. That they made a mistake in their leadership that had negative consequences. It is a hard thing to reconcile with the cut and thrust of adversarial politics. We all make mistakes and even how we tell ourselves how we came to make those mistakes…

What matters going forward, is how we redefine the appropriate level of political sanction to give a politician in the court of public opinion. Resignations from office are sometimes too much and perhaps not proportionate.

There are many options on an informal table of political punishments to make, deductions from pay, limitations on speaking times in parliament are just some.

The courts and the existing body laws will remain to punish major breaches of the law of course, but the public often wants their ‘pound of flesh’ in the form of a resignation. So again, how could we redefine political punishments in a way that’s proportionate and fair?

What do you think would be appropriate?

How might we bring in a type of ‘book of quantum’ to provide for some level of political consequence for screw-ups? Please leave your comments and suggests below, I’d be confident that the matter will be discussed in the coming year.

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.


From top: A Scene from Netflix’s The Crown; Heber Rowan

The Netflix series, “The Crown” released its fourth season recently and continued to delight audiences around the world. Aside from the stellar performances, writing, and overall production values; let’s discuss what makes it and monarchy for that matter: attractive.

The attraction of monarchy

The series is an illustrious portrayal of a family. That is: royal, that is beyond normal life and will always be. What is their name? The Windsors. The Royal family of Britain. The series depicts the inner and outer workings of their lives unlike any other can be, albeit with a certain degree of creative license. For them, I’d guess it must be ghastly. Sickening. As at the end of it all, they are real living people with their own feelings just like any of us.

Democracy is no perfect system, but at the same time, ancient traditions continue. Certain families in society all across the world and in history, have or have had a monarchy. Why is that? Why does the pomp and presence of royalty inspire such an emotional reaction and the British one more than most? Why does monarchy inspire thoughts of life beyond, otherness if you will?

This would come, I’d argue from the fundamentals of what we value in society and why we value the things we value leading to us to value certain flesh and blood people, royal people.

Britain, in a manner of speaking, is a theocracy, its head of state is the head of its Church, its ‘defender’. The monarch is the link between God and man, classically speaking. Though in life we value many things, not all are equally valued by all in the same way as others. Things are relative. Value is relative. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet, money is our most exchangeable expression of outward value. We like to have things we value, to get those goods and services, we need money for them. Some of us also value those who value money, have it or have a talent for getting it easily. It is what makes us attracted to those who might impart their skills on to us, or so bestow on us what they have. Others aspire to have it. Some even do so with a near-religious fervour.

In the United States, it is often remarked that a homeless person on the street looks at those with affluence as their potential future. Some day, yes one day… they might win big… catch that lucky break of the American dream. Possibilities are there indeed, but only so many in a country with entrenched racial divisions and inequalities of opportunity. To believe they can be jumped easily is erroneous and unfortunate.

While in Europe, particularly in Ireland. We begrudge those with wealth, we look down upon people who have the success that they’ve created from their own efforts. In some ways, we look down upon them and think, how dare they do this! How did they get that…Who did they screw over to get what they have?

It’s a subtle underlying cultural force. What matters, within this discussion on monarchy and wealth, is that money is an otherworldly thing. It is what is most valued beyond all else. While people do love others intrinsically, changing money within different decision-making processes, makes society largely what it is. An economy is defined by the quotidian actions of its constituent people.

“Economics is the ordinary business of life” — Alfred Marshall

It is to paraphrase from the series itself: the oxygen within all our lives. It is a constant. It is something that is in our lives around us whether we want it to be or not, we, unfortunately, need it and sadly want a lot of it. When an athlete chooses to run a race, they need more oxygen to keep going fast and hard.

Wealth is an aspiration for many. It is considered a manifestation of inner and outer tranquillity while it may not always, in actuality be that. Thought that is what it remains as. The public loved Lady Diana marrying her prince, an actual legally recognised prince. A surreal dream alive for society to see as a ‘fairytale’. That a transcendence from the pains of poverty could happen, that there could be more to the world oh so suddenly and for descendants thereafter.

Stories are people.
All stories are defined by their characters within the context of their conflicts. A balance between the three that can make us forget the world around us and become engrossed. The British royal family are the characters in their own story. For all of its faults, it shows us all that amid all of the wealth, there is conflict, that even royals are people. Flesh.

Conflict and dramatic events are triggers for change within everyone. How conflict plays out over the course of decades with people who can be placed within the context of extraordinary shifts in politics and society pulls us in. Why? Arguably because it allows us to distract from our own suffering. That we can make light of things in the reflection of others be they fictional or real.
There is of course the inherent conflict in The Crown with the nature of their birth forcing them into a life hard to escape from. That is their context. The inner wranglings of duty over personal life, it gives life to the plot of the series that jumps years in the space of an episode.

They live within the constant presence of power within the grandiosity of the walls of their homes. The art and beauty on the walls of their homes are more than the bare necessities of functional design. Such beauty serves to demonstrate the architecture of their power, that there is something beyond the day to day needs. It is also why democratically elected leaders have fine art and beauty within the surroundings of their stately homes and offices. A reminder of the otherness of power. That it is something more,

The British royal family are beloved by many not just because of the vestiges of the British empire’s soft-power, but because of their relatability. They speak English and travel widely engaging with the public where they go. Yes, there have been some members who have done despicable things… but they have kept up an appeal where other surviving constitutional or absolute monarchies haven’t. People want to know about them, gossip about the latest news because it is a fun distraction. Their stories, even mythology are a distraction, from not only the power they implicitly have but from the policy failures of successive governments.


This essay has been a look at a philosophical take on the value ascribed to one particular monarchy. It can be fairly pointed out that the British monarchy is popular due to its ability to adapt to changing circumstances in society, their wish to have increased pomp ascribed to the institution, their personalities and so on.

Monarchies that survive are the ones which are, like a business, able to adapt to the circumstances in which they operate. Stories of monarchy like this television series, are attractive because of rare opportunity to witness decades-long character development and a draw to the opulence of wealth.

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Pic: Netflix

From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil last night; the legal powers used to remove Barry Cowen; Heber Rowan

Two weeks into his role, Barry Cowen has been sacked from his brief as Minister for Agriculture and the Marine. A request to resign was apparently refused and the nuclear option was taken. A few hours after his colleagues defended him, he was persona non grata. Out.

Yesterday, Barry Cowen shared the details of a Garda Pulse report with Micheál Martin and in the evening he defended Cowen publicly saying questions remained. Cowen refused to answer further questions and Martin asked him to resign, he refused and thus sacked him.

Not since Brian Lenihan Senior has a minster been removed from office by article 28.9.4 of the constitution, normally the clout of a Taoiseach is enough internally to request a resignation. Not this time.

While former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter previously claimed he was sacked in recent years, the reality is that the time no one questioned Enda Kenny’s leadership. Now that’s happening to Micheál Martin over this sudden move.

All of this has been taken in light of a Garda Pulse report describing the events leading up to Cowen’s failed alcohol breathalyser test in 2016 as being more serious than initially claimed by the deputy in his contrite public apology last week.

The questions abound about this entire story.

Did Barry Cowen lie to Taoiseach Michael Martin initially about the details of his arrest four years ago?

If so, why would deputy Cowen have provided the Taoiseach with the copy of his Pulse report before defending him in the Dáil?

Furthermore, why did the Taoiseach defend him after seeing the contents of that report? Either he believed him that it was incorrect or he didn’t.

There was some public ire at the commencement of the investigation into the leaking of the Pulse in the past few days however, Mr Cowen, like any citizen, is due fair process.

Unfortunately, politics is cruel and unfair. Cowen’s refusal to answer further questions about the matter may well have been due to his reluctance to impinge on the active investigation taking place into the leaking of the confidential Garda report.

Public opinion arguably was more aghast last week at the bitterness some deputies who aired their dirty laundry at the reality that they weren’t as favoured or as powerful as they thought they were by not receiving cabinet positions.

Mistakes, criminal mistakes were indeed made by Barry Cowen and he paid the price under the letter of the law. Now he has paid a political price by becoming the second shortest minister ever to serve in an Irish Government.

Some may speculate that other deputies who were offered cabinet roles but turned them down were doing so strategically akin to Boris Johnson leaving Theresa May’s government after she announced her Brexit policies, but that could be thinking too deeply into things. Even in this analysis.

At the very start of Micheál Martin’s national leadership, he hit a political test and was immediately firefighting with disappointed deputies and the leak of Barry’s Cowen’s conviction to the press. After fighting with resilience to rebuild Fianna Fáil and its grassroots after the 2011 election, it looked like he’d built his house of cards.

Martin clearly wants to have his party unblemished by the misdeeds of the past. Yet what matters is that some sins are worse than others given the context of the times both in which they happen and in terms of when they are uncovered.

While some members of Dáil Éireann have criminal convictions against them, they can still hold on to their seats and in some cases, top their polls locally.

Indeed, we need to ask if we as the Irish public are OK with the prospect of former lawbreakers entering government?

Micheál Martin as the lawful leader of Ireland has to uphold the rule of law within Ireland and the central tenant of his decision is that to promote Fianna Fáil as a lawful party of governance, he decided on zero tolerance. None. Even when the legal price has been paid.

One might further ask if there were policy victories dealing with the housing crisis, COVID-19, Brexit or the many other matters in need of urgent attention, his political opponents would have always had a political stick to beat him with that would have drowned out any achievements.

The problem in politics is the changing nature of what matters to the electorate. Some elections are fought over the integrity of the leadership and others are decided by belief in the competency of the government to bring about the change that matters most to the electorate of the day.

So Martin invariably was asking himself yesterday evening, “would the electorate remember my defence of Barry Cowen as a reason not to vote for my party?”.

Cowen was arguably politically wrong to use the phrase ‘regularise’ relating to his use of a learner’s permit unaccompanied at age 47 did not help his situation. That said, thousands at the time drove unaccompanied on learner permits for years and it wasn’t a serious offence until the introduction of the Clancy amendment in 2018. Times change.

These events also raise the question; to enter public life do we have to completely unblemished, free from sin or mistakes in our past? We are of course all human and we do make mistakes.

Some law-breaking invariably can leaders of political causes that in time have their day as they overturn laws and redefine national attitudes to particular behaviours. Yet, that’s a distraction.

The real question is: has this made Michael Martin look stronger or weaker?

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Barry Cowen sacked and questions raised (Heber Rowan, Medium)

Last night: “Surprised And Disappointed’