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Monday, November 30, 2020

A Covid-19 Christmas


There are two schools of thought in dealing with a pandemic. There is the medical, which favours shutting everything down, never leaving the house, and boiling your extremities daily. And there is the economic, the laissez-faire capitalism approach where people die or do not, and the state has no part to play other than ensuring that the process of buying and selling continues uninterrupted.

The government have done some in-and-out running with regard to which school they’re following in their pandemic strategy. In April or May, at the end of first, full-duck lockdown, Taoiseach Varadkar believed nothing could be so terrible as to open up and then have to close again. When Doctor Holohan returned to NPHET and advised that the lockdown needed to be tightened in October, Tánaiste Varadkar pronounced that the advisers advise and governments govern, and that should be the end of it. Doctor Holohan’s advice was implemented two weeks later.

Now the government are four-square behind a different Christmas, but a good Christmas. A Christmas Ryan Tubridy can be proud of, and with no gloomy medicos acting as bad-news bears to spoil everybody’s fun.

Does the government ever wonder if Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, know it’s Christmastime at all? Is the government at all concerned whether or not Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, can tell if any particular environment is a wet pub or the perfume counter in Brown Thomas?

The government is betting that the people’s need for a “normal” Christmas, and the economy’s need for Christmas business, is greater than both the people’s intolerance of a third lockdown or the potential crisis caused by the HSE’s unknown ability to deal with a surge of post-Christmas cases.

Pat Leahy made the case for the economic benefit in a recent Irish Times column. The problem is that those economic arguments were no less true during the time the government locked down as they are now when it wants to lift lockdown. What is different? What is it about now that is was not the case a month ago, other than political opportunity? Could we, perhaps, save some money by not burning it on the altar of the Children’s Hospital instead?

On the people tolerating another lockdown, that seems to be a fifty-fifty proposition if an Ireland Thinks poll in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday is to be believed. If Ireland Thinks polling is anything like their website that may not be a worry. If the poll is on the level, then the government, and the political establishment in general, have badly misjudged the public mood.

How much the government suffer in consequence of this depends on how much the people suffer, which itself depends on how toasty things get for the HSE.

The HSE is not having a good pandemic. The HSE doesn’t do well in normal times – what hope have they in times of pandemic? This is under-reported in the press. There may be different reasons for this, but there can be no doubt that the government are handing out green jerseys at official and unofficial briefings morning, noon and night, and urging the media to “act responsibly” for the good of the nation.

But keeping schtum on the dysfunction of the Health Service does not serve the good of the nation. It serves the good of those who benefit from that dysfunction, to the detriment of the good of the nation. The media can only serve the good of the nation by keeping the nation informed of what the nation needs to know. And the nation needs to know that if there is a spike in cases to which the government is slow to respond, is likely to see a lot of business.

The argument against this is that the virus is not as deadly as it was. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that the virus has mutated, about which your correspondent knows nothing, quite frankly. The second is that treatment has improved as the medical world has had a year to study the thing. This is demonstrably true.

Against this is the remarkable sloth and inertia of the Health Service in Ireland. Change comes dropping slow in the HSE. Its ability to triage cases in an epidemic situation has never been tested but reader, as it creaks so badly at the best of times, what hope has it of surviving the worst?

A state’s ability to ease lockdowns in times of epidemic is proportional to the state’s ability to trace outbreaks to their origin. In New Zealand, they’re able to trace down to the cluster. Thirteen cases at a wedding in Wellington. Twenty-five cases at the Ruby Princess Cruise Ship in Hawke’s Bay. 

The highlight of Ireland’s case-tracing came in August of this year, when we managed to trace an outbreak to somewhere in Offaly, Laois, or Kildare. This does little for confidence in an agile response to a post-Christmas outbreak.

The importance of speed of response, again, is critical because of the speed with which the virus is propagated. A quick example. Let’s say you decided to walk north up O’Connell Street, and give yourself six minutes to do it, which is about what it takes at an average walking speed of five kilometres an hour.

If you travel at that speed, after three minutes you’re a little past the spire and the next three will see you at Parnell Street. But if you’re not travelling at that speed – if you’re travelling at an R-number of 1.1, say – you reach the spire only after 5 minutes, 53 seconds. You then cover the remaining half of the street in seven seconds. In another minute, that rate of acceleration will have you in Belfast.

The R-number doesn’t map exactly to rates of cases, of course, but it is useful in showing how quickly a health system can be overwhelmed if infections aren’t spotted and dealt with it in time. 5’53” to the Spire. Seven seconds the rest of the way. One minute more to Belfast. Happy Christmas.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Ballad of Football Jesus

The Ballad of Football Jesus

I don’t care if it rains or freezes
‘Cos I got my Football Jesus
Waitin’ on the sideline in the Hyde
In the Hy-ide, in the Hy-ide
Waitin’ on the sideline in the Hyde

I ain’t scared of snow or hail
Tulsk Lord Edward or Western Gael
With Football Jesus sittin’ by my side
By my si-ide, by my si-ide
With Football Jesus sittin’ by my side

He’ll jump for kickouts if they’re there
He’ll let her in quick to the edge of the square
There’s nothing Football Jesus cannot do
Cannot do-ooo, cannot do-ooo
There’s nothing Football Jesus cannot do

He can’t be bought for a bag of silver
Just give him the ball and he’ll deliver
Football Jesus’s here for me and you
Me and you-oo, me and you-oo,
Football Jesus’s here for me and you

Monday, November 02, 2020

How Do You Solve a Problem like Varadkar?

Carefully parsing the media over the weekend – or such media as were arsed working the weekend – one gets the feeling that An Tánaiste and the government are safe. An Tánaiste will have to say sorry to all the boys and girls in the class, but that will be the end of it.

Your correspondent is not so sure. Besides; if the media had their way the story would never have broken in the first place. This story came from the clear blue sky – Village magazine is by no means mainstream – and it was not mentioned on RTÉ at all until different TDs started asking questions on Saturday afternoon. Once these genies escape their bottles it’s not easy know just how to get them back. So let’s examine the battlefield and do a little war-gaming, to pass the long winter’s day away.

The Substantive Issue

Did Leo Varadkar behave unethically in leaking confidential information to his buddy while Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach? Well, dur. Of course he did. If there were such things as ethics in Irish public life, he’d be gone already, and anybody who says any different is either too innocent for the world or else on the payroll.

Consider recent resignations from public office. Why did Alan Shatter have to resign as Minister for Justice? Why did Enda Kenny have to resign as Taoiseach? Why did Frances Fitzgerald have to resign? What did they do wrong that went so far beyond the bounds that they had to go?

The answer is: nothing. Each went because it was politically expedient to throw him or her under the bus. Shatter went to save the guards from being exposed as being up to some very funny business indeed (and the fact that nobody likes him). Enda went because Leo decided that his time had come, and he had enough people in Fine Gael to agree with him. Frances went for the same reason as Shatter. Nothing else.

Therefore, the realpolitik of An Tánaiste’s position isn’t whether or not he behaved badly, because he certainly did, but is it politically expedient to make him pay? That is a matter of political judgement and political gamesmanship, and entirely in the hands of certain of the parties in the Dáil. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

Fianna Fáil

It is surely Micheál Martin’s dearest wish that An Tánaiste had managed to hit a higher bar than that achieved by former Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen in attempting to weasel his way out of the mess. Sadly, he did not. The response from An Tánaiste on Saturday was watery in the extreme, and is worth nothing. There is no solace for Martin there. Therefore, he is hopeful for someone, somewhere, in the other parties to save him from having to make a potentially painful decision.

The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party want Varadkar gone, not least because they hate his guts. There was some quite bullish tweeting from Deputies O’Callaghan and MacSharry on Saturday, and from Senator Dooley. However, every time the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has been asked to stand up and be counted, they have run for the hills like spring lambs. It is difficult to believe this situation will be any different.

The Green Party

There exists a perpetual battle between the Green Party and the Labour Party to see who is the most virtuous of them all. This gets especially nasty when one or the other has taken the shilling and accepted a place in government. Each goes into government swearing that things will be different this time and each comes out battered and bruised, things having been exactly the same this time, actually.

Does Deputy Ryan have the stones to do a Ruairí Quinn and demand a head? If he does and gets the head, Deputy Ryan doesn’t get any gyp from the bolshy wing of his party from now until Christmas. If Deputy Ryan asked for a head and doesn’t get it, he can go to the country on the Ethics ticket. If he behaves as Deputy Hourigan seems to suspect he will, then his own head will soon be in a basket, beyond all shadow of a doubt. There’s only so much tree huggers can live with before they reach for their hatchets.

Fine Gael

The most delicious dilemma of them all. The fundamental question is this: do Fine Gael want to fight an election on whether or not their leader was right to leak a confidential document to his buddy when that document was considerably to his buddy’s material benefit? If they are, then Leo is going nowhere and he will dare either Deputy Martin or Deputy Ryan to oppose him. If they so dare, Deputy Varadkar then pulls the plug, the government collapses and either the President asks the parties to see if they can form another government without an election, or we all head for the polls.

Where this gets spicy is if there’s a majority of the Fine Gael party who do not want to fight an election on those terms. Pascal Donohue was on This Week on RTÉ Radio 1 defending An Tánaiste to the hilt, but of course Deputy Donohue was one of the first to back Leo for leader in the first place. There has been so statement at time of writing (Sunday night, about ten o’clock) from either Simon Coveney, Simon Harris or Helen McEntee, the contenders for the leadership should a vacancy arise. The longer there is no word from them, the more nervous Deputy Varadkar should get.

If Fine Gael turn against Varadkar, Micheál Martin’s problem is solved. Deputy Varadkar is duly defenestrated, a new leader of Fine Gael is elected and the government survives until Christmas, probably. If they don’t, then there are decisions to make. And the decisions will of course be influenced by Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party has the doubtful gift of sounding wonderful while in opposition. One imagines them parading through City Hall in their togas, such is the height of their rhetoric. They have been strangely silent so far on this issue, but Deputy Kelly has a combative personality. It’s hard to imagine him resisting going for a jugular.

But it’s going to take more than the Labour Party rattling their sabres to get the government’s attention should they decide to dig foxholes and wait out the shelling, because the Labour Party is not what you’d call numerous. Neither is it likely to be a substantial player in the formation of the next government. Unlike Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin

Is this Leo Varadkar affair a Rubicon for Sinn Féin? The argument for them sitting dumb on this is their own tremendous need to show themselves as an acceptable party of government, a responsible party of government. Responsible parties don’t collapse governments in the middle of pandemics just because someone was a bit indiscrete with confidential secrets while Taoiseach, do they? One sees the bigger picture.

However. Sinn Féin incredible result in the last election was because of a perception that Sinn Féin were not like the other parties. If they give Varadkar a pass on this, they are exactly like other parties – something that will be loudly noted by the entities further on Sinn Féin’s left, such as Deputies Murphy, Smyth and the rest. This is a nightmare for Sinn Féin. Deputies Murphy, Smyth and rest will never challenge Sinn Féin for a place in government but they can, and have, cost Sinn Féin seats that they can’t do without.

It is interesting also to note that, ever since Dr Holohan returned to head up NPHET and his letter advocating a Level-5 lockdown was leaked, Sinn Féin have been notably less strident in their criticism of the government. Could it be that the party has echoed St Augustine and prayed “Lord, let us govern, but not yet?” 

The War Game

As it is now, if I were Mary-Lou McDonald, I would table a motion of no confidence in the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Leo Varadkar and see who salutes. I can’t risk being outmanoeuvred on my left, and my luck will be out should this manoeuvring precipitate an election. But I cannot allow myself to be outmanoeuvred on my left, and this is a risk I must take if I am to win all.

Most of the rest of the Opposition would support  a motion of No Confidence in Leo, as they’re not likely to be all that fond of him either, and know a sacrifice will help keep the public calm. A Deputy McGrath or a Healy-Rae may go rogue, for divilment, but otherwise it’s the canny thing to do.

This then passes the hand grenade back to Fine Gael. If Fine Gael decide they don’t want to face the country defending Leo, then out the window he goes and the crisis is over. Alternatively, if Fine Gael decide Leo is the boy for good or for ill, then the hand grenade becomes two hand grenades, one of which falls into Deputy Ryan’s lap, and the other into An Taoiseach’s.

In the best case scenario, Both Deputies Martin and Ryan agree that Leo has got to go. It will make the election look more worthwhile, and may cause Fine Gael to recalibrate exactly how up for battle Fine Gael really are, realising the strength of Fianna Fáil and the Greens together is greater than the sum of their parts.

In the worst case scenario, Deputies Martin and Ryan defend Varadkar because they are scared, and this will surely seal their doom. Ryan’s certainly, because the Greens have proved more restive since this most peculiar of governments was formed.

If Martin could have Varadkar defenestrated it would be the best news he’s had in nine years, but again that is not in his control. That is entirely in the gift of Fine Gael, which paints a very vivid picture of just how far Fianna Fáil have fallen in ten years.


Somebody is losing a head over this. It’s just a question of who, and how many.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Working Man's Lament for the Pint of Stout

Joe Hill is one of the great folk/protest songs, and has been covered by the best folk/protest singers - Paul Robeson, Joan Baez, and Luke Kelly. As such, you're correspondent has decided to lift the tune and disgrace it, in order to bewail my own utterly selfish wants (that may, nonetheless, be shared by a good big slice of the population). All together now, here we go:


I dreamed I heard a pint of stout
hissing from the cask
Says I but stout, it's level five
And I can't drink you through my mask
I can't drink you through my mask

The pubs are closed, I said to stout
as the ghostly vision swayed
The only jars we see these days
Are full of marmalade
Are full of marmalade

The Palace Bar, and Mulligan's,
and all the pubs in Dublin town
Where porter flowed like mountain springs
Today are all shut down
Today are all shut down

I saw George Lee, on RTÉ,
Say we're locked down for the quarter
I damned his eyes, and cursed my fate,
and I dreamed once more of porter,
I dreamed once more of porter.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Irish Political Culture Is Ill-Suited to the Times

Leinster House

 It would be nice if the state were to take stock and reset some dials when the pandemic finally runs its course. The state is nearly one hundred years old. The circumstances that prevailed in 1922 do not prevail now. This is a different Ireland, and it needs a different regulatory structure.

The Irish Free State was born from an armed revolution that led to civil war. The traces of that violent birth remain in our institutions. The first governments of the Free State were about consolidating that state against enemies, to borrow a phrase from the USA, both foreign and domestic. Therefore, the balance tilted more towards the institution than the citizen whenever the interests of the two competed.

The state is now as stable as a state can be. The IRA are gone. The state is protected by the European Super State that is currently being born, and that European Super State may be a better bet than China for replacing the USA as the greatest power in the world in a generation or two.

As such, we should now be in a position of sufficient maturity to loosen some of the over-tight bonds, and in a position of sufficient wisdom born from experience, between the financial crash and the pandemic, to see the need for loosening those bonds.

Consider the case of judging the judges. Ireland’s laws regarding freedom of speech are highly restrictive. This restriction acts as a halter on the media’s ability to tell stories fully, which in turn comforts the strong and afflicts the weak.

We’ve seen it in the past fortnight concerning Golfgate and Mr Justice Wolfe. The current issue of The Phoenix details the twenty-year struggle to have a judicial council appointed, a twenty-year struggle that has yet to leave the starting gate. Not good enough.  This needs to be fixed as a matter of urgency.

Judicial accountability is just one of a number of major areas of Irish public life that are not scrutinised. The property market and the meat-factory industry are two obvious cases. The communal living scheme is eerily reminiscent of the boom in building two-bedroom apartments with parking for one car of the early 2000s. The two-bedroom apartment is the most profitable type of building for a developer. It is the least useful for families looking for homes. Are we going to make the same mistakes again? If not, what’s going to stop us?

As for the meat factories, the special treatment given to the cause of keeping schools open during the pandemic is certainly understandable, if perhaps not entirely wise. The special treatment afforded the meat factories makes no sense whatsoever. The special treatment is so odd that it resulted in Michael McDowell and Sinn Féin being on the same side of the argument, not something that occurs very often. What’s going on, and why is it going on? A deafening silence from Institutional Ireland.

One of the flaws in Irish political culture is the culture’s emphasis on politics and lack of emphasis on governance. As a people, we revel in stories about strokes and politicians slipping blades between each other’s ribs. Governance – whether the bins should be collected at the start or the end of a week; how best to distribute services, by geography or population; how best to distribute taxes; how best to educate children; how to deal with the left-behind – all these questions bore us rigid. Ireland expects somebody else to worry about that stuff. The part of democracy that demands the sovereign people take responsibility for these decisions is a penny that has yet to drop with the Irish nation.

Perhaps it will drop now. One of the effects of the pandemic is that the nation’s indifference to the spectacular levels of public-service waste is coming home to roost. Why does Ireland lack acute bed capacity? Because acute bed capacity has never been an issue in Irish politics. Every party throws money at the HSE and hopes a miracle will result. They are incapable of doing anything else. Utterly out of their depth.

When Norma Foley announced the balls-up in the Leaving Cert results, who was really surprised? We might not have said it aloud, but nobody really expected that automated system to work. The government got away with it by giving everyone whatever course they wanted. If that has negative consequences, they’ll happen on someone else’s watch, a double-result on any Irish politician’s scorecard.

The most important thing to take from all of this is that it’s not the politician’s fault. It’s out fault for electing them. These are not colonial governors sent from London. These are ourselves, doing things as we, the sovereign people, would have them done.

Therefore, the onus is on the people to change their taste in politics. Politics has to become boring, an accountants’ game of what did you say you’d do, what did you do, how much did it cost, why did it happen, why didn’t it happen and how much did it all cost? The electoral system will have to change too, as it’s inclined to prioritise local over national needs. This will reduce the fun of election counts, but reader, look on the bright side. Maybe you’ll be able to go for a pint again. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

Monday, September 28, 2020

In Opposition to Suicide, Assisted or Otherwise

Deputy Gino Kenny

Deputy Gino Kenny’s Dying with Dignity Bill is due to go before the Dáil this week. It should be opposed for two reasons – the floodgate effect, and what such a bill says about the very nature of life itself.

The Floodgate Effect

Most conservative objections to liberal social legislation are based on floodgate effects. This is because all legislation has a floodgate effect. If it didn’t, what would be the point of it?

The Dying with Dignity Bill contains a number of provisions to limit this floodgate effect. A “qualifying person” must be diagnosed as suffering from a terminal disease with no hope of a cure by two separate medical professionals. There must be a treatment paper trail. A qualifying person must be judged mentally capable of making the decision to die. There will be provision made for conscientious objection by medical professionals. And so on.

Immense cultural taboos towards taking life before its natural end currently exist. For all the horrors of death – and they are many – very few people step forward to put a pillow on the face of the dying and hurry things along.

We all tell each other how we’ll eat a bullet before suffering the indignity of being a bedridden, senile incontinent in a nursing home. Everyone nods their head when that comes up in discussion. And yet the western world has this year shut itself down to protect the lives, among others, of those same bedridden, senile incontinents. Isn’t there a certain inconsistency in that? Are we really sure we know what we’re doing here?

If this bill, or a bill like it, were passed and a similar pandemic were to arrive a generation or two later, there wouldn’t be any debate at all about what to do with the nursing homes. Once the taboo is broken and the years go by, the constraints are lifted, one by one, because their original impulse, the deep-seated taboo, no long exists.

Succeeding generations will be puzzled to know what all these obstacles are doing in what should have been perfectly straight-forward legislation. Look at this ridiculous two-doctor rule. If I need a tooth pulled, I don’t know two dentists to tell me, do I? What about the qualified person being in full awareness of the decision? For goodness sake, surely if you’ve lost your marbles, you’re more or less dead already, aren’t you? What were these people thinking in 2020?

The Fundamental Irrationality of Life

The current age – which has been the current age since Pierre Beaumarchais staged the Marriage of Figaro at the Comédie-Française in Paris in 1778, for what that’s worth – sees itself as the age of science. There are no ghosts in the machine. There is, and there ain’t. With apologies to Wittgenstein, what is, is, and what ain’t, ain’t. It is unfortunate to take so unsubtle a position with regard to so messy a proposition as life, and society, and humanity. It can lead down strange paths.

Some of the great scientific minds of the first half of the Twentieth Century were eugenicists. Two of the founding fathers of modern statistics, Sir Francis Galton and Sir Ronald Fisher, were eugenicists. They had read their Darwin (Galton and Darwin were related) and done their sums. What was the point in human progress being held back by, to borrow a phrase from a movie, too many goofy bastards in the herd?

The eugenics movement never recovered from the Allies’ entry into the Ohrdruf concentration camp in April 6th, 1945. It’s one thing to talk about eugenics and tidying up the race while enjoying a glass of port after a five-course dinner. It’s quite another to see that race-tidying process industrialised as the Germans, that nation of engineers, had done.

Science favours controlled breeding. How could it not? There are no rational arguments against it. Only the sentimental. And yet it is sentiment that makes us human in the first place, is it not? Just how rational is the human animal anyway?

Our only certainty in life is death. Whoever you are, where-ever you are, whether you are a man or a woman, rich or poor, tall or short, you will die. It’s only a question of when.

What, then, is the point of living? What is the point in knowing that all you have will be left behind you, in knowing that every day brings the end closer, that every day after your peak you have declined by that little bit more, until that poor bastard in the nursing home wearing the diaper is your own sweet self? The very act of living exists in defiance of rationality itself.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to get dead. People die all the time. They’re here, and then they’re not, and they are never coming back, ever, not even for a glimpse on the side of a hill in the distance. Gone.

And yet, for reasons that are not rational, that do not balance on both sides of the equation, people fight for life with tooth and claw. All the damned in the war zones of the world, in Yemen, in Syria, in South Sudan – why do they cling to life as they do? Where is the kindness in allowing them to suffer so when their end is inevitable? Wouldn’t it be kinder for the West to come along and assist them into the Undiscovered Country?

Cultural taboos are to the social sciences what Schrödinger's cat is to physics. All very explicable in theory but when you go looking for the actual thing itself it proves very damned hard to pin down. Physicists have been searching for that damn cat for ninety-five years, and have yet to find a single whisker. We change what we do not understand at our absolute peril.

FOCAL SCOIR. Some people do not need assistance to commit suicide. Some people are every day aware that the means of their escape is in their own hands. The big thing to remember here, and the point I think that’s being missed by this bill, is that suicide only looks like an escape. It’s not really. An exit door is only ever an exit door. It’s always better to stay in the ring, because it can’t rain every day. It just can’t. If life is hanging heavy with you these days, it’s no harm to give the Samaritans ( a shout. You can call them at 116 123 twenty-four hours a day, whenever suits. They’d love to hear from you.