Monday, November 29, 2010

Burning the Wrong Witch - the Need for Irish Political Reform

Whatever else may befall from the events of this recession, the single thing that seems to infuriate people most is this idea that financial speculators are being rescued for backing the wrong horse. That people will see schools close and taxes rise in order to pay off the infamous bondholders.

Ireland, however, is not paying the price for the Mr Monopoly’s reckless speculation. Ireland is paying the price for our own inability to regulate our own banks, our own financial system and our own system of politics.

There is a worrying air of politics as usual about everything that’s going on in the country. Brian Cowen put in his best performance on TV at the press conference yesterday evening, when he resisted his hopeless jargon addiction and spoke plainly and in detail about the details of the bailout.

Two little too late for the misfortunate Cowen, of course. Any chance he had of saving either his Premiership or his job as leader of Fianna Fáil is long lost. Time doesn’t wait for someone to get his act his act together. It rolls on relentlessly.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, rather than leading and risking a prize that's more or less impossible to lose, are just staying out of trouble and waiting for power to fall into their laps.

But where the people are being sold short is in thinking that the problem begins and ends with Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil will take their hammering at the polls in February but it will not be a wipeout.

And in the next election, who will bet against a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach taking the salute at the GPO in 2016? The lesson of history tells us that Fianna Fáil, though damaged, will survive, and come back to win the next one. That has been the case since 1932.

To understand how we got into this mess the nation has to realise that our whole way of doing business is fundamentally unsound and admit our own culpability in this. We are paying for the banks because we couldn’t regulate the banks. We couldn’t regulate the banks because we are, as a nation, a little too open to corruption and sharp practice.

We don’t think politicians should be on the take. But if a man wants a few pound for himself, like, that’s not so bad. Sure wouldn’t we all do that?

It’s been the case for over two thousand years, since before the fall of the Roman Republic, that elected representatives should be held to higher account than ordinary citizens – that even Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion, let alone Caesar himself.

In Ireland we repeatedly elect and re-elect politicians who not only put their own local and personal needs above the greater good of the nation, but shout from the rooftops that they do this, and are hailed for it.

Ireland isn’t a democracy of ideas. It’s a democracy of tribes – where local tribal chieftains fight over the spoils of the nation, and return to the village with rewards of patronage for the in-crowd. This is why the banks are in a mess – because actual fair regulation leaves no room for wheeler-dealing, cutting corners, horse-trading and nodding and winking.

This failure exists across the party system – why else didn’t the opposition call a halt to the disgraceful tribunals, if not for fear of being themselves exposed? Why aren’t the opposition now shouting for root and branch reform from the rooftops, other than the fact that the system suits them just as well as it suits Fianna Fáil?

The perception exists now that the bondholders are the bad guys, holding Ireland up to ransom. But the Irish ourselves that are the bad guys, because we regulate our affairs according to who you know and what deals he or she can cut.

And as a nation, we bitch and moan and rage about Brian Cowen and the bondholders and Fianna Fáil. But the sad truth is we are so blind to the true nature of our politics that we can’t even tell who’s holding the blade that’s currently slicing us up like a Christmas turkey.

Political reform now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

RTÉ Complacency, Incompetence Symbolic of the Greater National Malaise

Irish Press ConferenceRTÉ’s stunning and repeated coverage failures for one of the historic days in the history of the state is further evidence of just why we’re in the mess that we’re in.

The Observer hit the bulls-eye in its editorial yesterday. This isn’t just the failure of one Government, but the failure of an entire political culture. The media is part of that culture and, as the national broadcaster, RTÉ has a duty above and beyond all other media outlets to tell the people what’s going on. They failed in that duty.

Instead of having live coverage from outside Government buildings from when the cabinet meeting started yesterday afternoon, the national broadcaster decided instead to show Ireland’s Greatest Talent Show, Reeling in the Years and Fair City.

Aware that they were in danger of being scooped by both the BBC and Sky News, RTÉ managed to cancel Gaybo Laughs Back at half-eight to show the Government press conference live. Or almost live – the RTÉ feed was about a minute behind the British broadcasters. Evidence that RTÉ were really caught on the hop.

And then, the most astonishing decision of all – RTÉ cut from the press conference just as Vincent Browne was getting medieval on An Taoiseach, in order to interview their own correspondent. For no apparent reason.

The Nine O’Clock News did not reflect the momentous events of the day and RTÉ appear to have been quite content to go through the motions with a pre-recorded Week in Politics were the eternally mischievous Vincent Browne not hosting a special edition of his current affairs show. RTÉ appeared plenty interested in spiking Browne’s guns.

This is why the state is so deep in the soup. Because the higher echelons of Irish society – the banks, the broadcasters, the politicians, the legal profession - are all comfortable while the general population is utterly lost in what’s going on and genuinely terrified for the future.

Ireland needs a new politics. This is bigger than a single Government. The civil war politics has run its course and it’s time for new beginnings.

In Ireland, it’s more or less impossible to start a new party from scratch, for lots of reasons. The only hope is that one of the three major parties throws up a Gorbachev, an FW de Klerk or a John Hume.

Men who see the big picture and realise that they have to put a bullet in their own party to destroy their own politics to build a new system, as the old one is dead and stinking. We can only hope there’ll still be an Ireland when he or she rises. Go bhfóire Dia orainn.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Two Rock Star Autobiographies - John McGuinness and Keith Richards

Two of the greatest rock stars of all time have published books in recent weeks, just in time for the Christmas market.

John McGuinness, TD for Carlow-Kilkenny, needs no introduction of course. Rebel. Rockstar. Maverick. Outsider. A piper at the gates of dawn, a moonlight shadow, a zephyr howling through the Curlew Mountains and on into the members’ bar of Dáil Éireann.

While the lesser known Keith Richards is an Englishman with the face of a prune and who is said to have more of different people’s blood sluicing through his system than Count Dracula.

Both men laugh in the face of doom, and spit in the eye of terror. Both walk with hellhounds on their trail. McGuinness calls his book The House Always Wins, thus showing that he dreams the impossible dream, and fights the ungovernable sea. Keith Richards – well, you only have to look at the head on him.

Funnily enough, in calling his book “The House Always Wins,” the reader would be forgiven for thinking that maybe McGuinness is anti-establishment or something. You’d think that maybe he wants to tear down the house.

The fact that McGuinness remains very firmly ensconced in Fianna Fáil despite have roasted the Government on several occasions would indicate that our hero is happy as a tick with the way things are, actually. He likes to blow off a little every now and again, like some great whale somewhere between Greenland and Tarwathie.

In rock and roll terms, John McGuinness is very much like the former American president: he smokes, but he does not, under any circumstances, inhale.

McGuinness’ credibility as providing an alternative is lessened also by the first photograph in his book which is, unless I’m mistaken, a picture of his dear old Da and his dear old Da before him, both dressed in chains. Not because they were on the prison ship to Van Diemen’s Land now; it’s that they were both politicians before John himself, and thus got to dress up like Knights of the Garter. After all, what has been more important throughout the history of the Republic than royal blood? McGuinness is an unusual revolutionary if he’s leading the charge from inside the castle, aiming out.

Poor Dessie O’Malley was on Marian Finucane’s radio show a few Sundays ago, talking about how difficult it is to set up a new political party now. But at least Dessie tried. We have to say that much for him.

As for the guitar-picker: there’s an interesting quote from the manager of The Grateful Dead, Rock Scully, in Nick Kent’s recently published autobiography Apathy for the Devil, about the Stones, the ‘sixties and peace and love: “Woodstock and Altamount are seen as polar opposites in a mass-media generated parable of light and darkness, but they were just two ends of the same mucky stick, the net result of the same disease: the bloating of mass bohemia in the late ‘sixties.”

Not only did Joan Didion say more or less the same thing, but she called it at the time in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The sooner history swallows Keith Richards and his hopelessly narcissistic and utterly hypocritical generation the better. They’ll be no loss.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tosca at the Gaiety

Tosca is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, yet it’s appeal isn’t immediately obvious. Tosca isn’t charming like La Bohème or heartbreaking like La Traviata; you don’t hear the faintest echo of the voice of God like you do when listening to Mozart, nor do you come away from Tosca trilling the tunes like you do from Carmen.

Luciano Pavarotti chose Tosca as his last ever opera (at the Met in New York in 2004) even though the tenor role, Carvaradossi, is a bit on the watery side. Floria Tosca herself isn’t the most appealing heroine in the repertoire either, yet all the greats have sung her.

Everyone comes back to Tosca for two reasons. The first is the quality of the drama which, after a slow-burning start, is as tight as any operatic drama can be. And the second is Baron Scarpia, the villain of the piece, who is the greatest original villain in opera.

Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma,” Tosca says of Scarpia at the end of the second act; before him, all Rome trembled. Scarpia is the chief of police in Rome at the start of the 19th century. What Scarpia wants, Scarpia gets, and he’s not too fussy how he gets it. And what he wants tonight is Tosca herself. He’s a bit of a buck that way, Scarpia.

The opening chords of the opera, are Scarpia’s theme, a motif that’s repeated throughout the piece. Scarpia dominates the opera just as Tosca says he dominates Rome and the story of the opera is how his uniquely evil shadow falls on the lovers, the painter and revolutionary Mario Carvaradossi and the opera singer Floria Tosca.

The first act is frustratingly complicated, but the drama really begins when Scarpia makes his sudden entrance half-way through, announced by his theme. This is the moment when you know if the opera will be a success; the singer playing Scarpia must carry the role or else the whole show falls apart.

You quickly find out if he can as, after a few minutes to con the flighty Tosca into thinking that Cavaradossi is cheating on her, Scarpia gets to sing his great set piece, Va, Tosca, against the Te Deum that the church choir sings to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon as first act finale.

There are other great arias in Tosca – Tosca’s own Vissi D’Arte, Cavaradossi’s E Lucevan Le Stelle – but nothing matches the Te Deum. The music builds up as Scarpia’s lust for Tosca contrasts with the religious music of the Te Deum itself until Scarpia becomes aware of his own damnation – because religion and faith, good and evil are strong themes of the opera – at the climax of the piece when he sings “Tosca, you make me forget God!” A fantastic exposition of what makes opera great as an art form, and worth the price of admission alone.

For those going to see Opera Ireland’s Tosca, the final production before the establishment of the new Irish National Opera, here’s a treat to whet the appetite. It’s the brilliantly bug-eyed Ruggero Raimondi singing the Te Deum in a TV Tosca from 1992 that was sung live in real time from the historical locations in Rome in which the opera is set – the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Staggering.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Morgan Kelly, Fiscal Autonomy and the Kindness of Strangers

Morgan Kelly is not like the other members of the Irish economic commentariat. The officer class of the bean-counters – David McWilliams, Jim Power, Brendan Keenan, Brian Lucey – are on TV or radio so often you could imagine they were all somehow related to Ryan Tubridy. There’s no escaping them.

Kelly ploughs a different furrow. He is never on TV or radio, and is not available for press interviews. His only contributions are more or less bi-annual philippics in the Irish Times on the economic issues of the day, philippics that foretell the end of days just around the corner, where there will weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Stylewise, Kelly is a combination of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah (“Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Turn back to the Lord your God!”) and Corporal Fraser of Dad’s Army (“Doomed. We’re all doomed.”)

And Kelly may well be right. He has certainly hit a nerve with people who email links to Professor Kelly’s works when they come out and then spend the rest of the evening idly wondering where a man might get a good price on a rope and a bottle of brandy.

Professor Kelly also taps into a powerful vein of self-loathing and lack of confidence in the nation when he reflects how things have come to this: “Europeans had to endure a decade of Irish politicians strutting around and telling them how they needed to emulate our crony capitalism if they wanted to be as rich as we are.” We can all feel the lash there.

However. An Spailpín can’t help but wonder if Morgan Kelly’s current guru status has more to do with style than substance. Your humble correspondent wouldn’t like to try taking on Professor Kelly on the substance of the matter as An Spailpín has no financial training whatsoever. But on style issues there was one thing I noticed about Professor Kelly’s piece yesterday that gave me pause to wonder if that was brimstone I could smell or just more hot air.

Professor Kelly remarks that “During September, the Irish Republic quietly ceased to exist as an autonomous fiscal entity, and became a ward of the European Central Bank.” What does that mean exactly, “an autonomous fiscal entity”?

An Spailpín’s guess is that “an autonomous fiscal entity” is a state that can control its own money free of the influence of other states. And this has only ever been the case for three of the 89 years of the state’s existence.

The Free State punt was introduced in 1928, seven years after “independence” but as a currency it was directly linked to sterling. One English pound was one Irish pound. The only difference was the picture on the banknotes. Irish banknotes were printed in England, and the coins made by Her Britannic Majesty’s Royal Mint, until 1978.

In financial terms, Ireland didn’t even have dominion status as a currency. Perhaps this explains why Ireland wasn’t able to take advantage of our neutrality in the war – because the currency was bound hand and foot to the British war effort. We were only, in those most evocative of Irish phrases, kinda independent. Sorta free.

The punt lasted for three years among the currencies of the Earth, by which stage we joined the EMU and hung on for dear life while the value of the punt fluctuated like a citizen’s heart rate on reading another of Professor Kelly’s articles.

If I am doing the Professor a disservice maybe someone could email me but in claiming that Ireland ever was an “autonomous fiscal entity” it seems to me that Morgan Kelly is having a little bit of jam on it. It is not today or yesterday that Ireland has become reliant on “the kindness of strangers.” This has been the state of play since the foundation of the state.

When Brian Lenihan introduced his emergency budget last year, Richie Ryan, was interviewed on This Week on Radio One. Ryan, who served as Minister for Finance under Liam Cosgrave from 1973 to 1977, said that when he was appointed he got a letter from one of his predecessors who said that he would pray for Ryan and “the cross you bear for Ireland.”

That’s the reality of Ireland’s fiscal autonomy. The Tiger was the chimera; the hard life is the reality over the history of the state. Ireland is a very small country with no natural resources and a huge reliance on foreign direct investment to keep the show on the road. We are in no position to pull faces about the kindness of strangers. If strangers are running our economy maybe that’s a good thing. We’ve certainly made a bags of running it ourselves.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Is TV Really Better Than the Movies?

Is TV really better than the movies? The debate is in the ether. An Spailpín was discussing the issue only a fortnight ago with a man acclaimed by many as the Pride of the Ross, and now I see the matter mentioned in passing in the Telegraph and in Edward Jay Epstein’s Hollywood Economist blog.

The Telegraph and the Hollywood Economist concentrate on the parlous state of the movie industry, and do a fine job of it. An Spailpín recommend’s Tom Shone’s Blockbuster of some years ago for further study. But this notion that TV is better than the movies is one that concerns us more so than the future of Hollywood.

That the movies are particularly bad at the moment is more or less beyond dispute. With the exception of shooting stars like The Hangover the output of the industry is generally dreck. But is TV really that good either?

The rise of cable TV in the States is the reason behind the rise in the status of TV drama. Shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Sex in the City on cable in the past ten years have elevated TV drama to a more adult and serious plane, while the rise of the cheap DVD boxset and Sky plus means that TV watching isn’t as time-constrained as it once was. You can consume TV on your own terms, in your own time.

However, An Spailpín can’t help but think that TV as an art-form is denied the most important thing that an art-form needs: permanence. Because TV shows are so very long through their runs, who is going to be able to sit through all of a particular series that didn’t catch it first time out?

Most people of this generation love The Sopranos. In ten years’ time, who is going to want to sit down and watch a six-series, 28 disc box set in the hope that it will be worth his or her considerable time?

You can call a friend, tell him or her you’ve just seen this great movie from the 1970s called The Godfather and recommend it highly. Within a week your friend can have called around, borrowed the DVD or downloaded it him or herself, and report back. Your discussion of your shared aesthetic experience can enrich both your lives.

But if he or she has never seen any of The Sopranos and you make your recommendation this week, he or she won’t be able to report back until the Six Nations rugby starts, unless he or she has a most remarkably dull Christmas and might then make the finishing line before the end of the FBD League.

And even then, the experience of an intense exposure to those 28 discs isn’t the same as the slow exposure that our generation has had to the Sopranos, when it wove itself into our consciousness over ten years. It’s the difference between letting the pint settle or draining it white.

And as every year since the Sopranos was in its heyday goes by, the references to Tony Soprano will become more and more obscure and will become meaningless, like those to Poldark or The Onedin Line.

Poldark or the Onedin Line? They were big deals in the 1970s, along with I, Claudius, Rich Man, Poor Man and Washington: Behind Closed Doors. All of them thought revolutionary, must-see, appointment TV in their day. But who bothers sitting through 20 discs of the Onedin Line now? What would be the point? That was then, this is now.

Fathers can watch Shane with their sons and share an artistic experience. Mothers can watch Gone with the Wind with their daughters, and everybody can watch It’s a Wonderful Life. You can’t do that with TV series. It takes too long.

The Sex and the City TV show was the most revolutionary cultural experience for fifty per cent of the population of the west. But will the woman to whom that show spoke be able to share that with their daughters when they’re old enough to understand?

It’s difficult to see how. The DVDs will be kept at the back of a press somewhere, only taken out in punishment towards delinquent gentlemen of the house who do not leave out bins, do not put down toilet seats or talk during the X-Factor. Time’s fell hand will have obliterated the rest.