Monday, January 31, 2011

Only One Winner in the Democracy Now Fiasco - George Lee

There is only one winner in this Democracy Later debacle and that is George Lee. George Lee tried. The media cabal behind Democracy Not Just Yet didn’t, and that will be their legacy. It now looks like they were all just hot air.

Fintan O’Toole’s extraordinary justification for his excellent imitation of the Grand Old Duke of York in Saturday’s Irish Times is a remarkable document, and a deeply depressing one.

This sentence seems particularly worthy of analysis: “An inadequate effort wouldn’t be a noble failure. It would be worse than doing nothing at all because it would raise hopes and then dash them.”

Remember the boy or girl in college whom everyone fancied in vain? You eventually pluck up the courage to ask him or her if, on the off-chance he or she has no plans, he or she wouldn’t mind being your date at the Engineers’ Ball on Saturday week only to get the wan look and pitying smile that are the inevitable precursors to the bullet behind the ear.

You are let down, politely but firmly, with the intelligence that, as a worm like you and a god/goddess such as he or she could never be an item in this or any other alternate reality, it would actually be crueller for the god/goddess to build your hopes up now only to inevitably dash them later by breaking your tiny little heart. Better to leave you in the mud with all the other lower phyla.

You can hear him or her say it, can’t you? “Oh no, John/Jane. I really respect you as a friend but you see, going to the Engineers’ Ball with you would be would be worse than doing nothing at all because it would raise hopes and then dash them.”

Worse than nothing at all. Staggering.

In what parish between Hell and Bethlehem would the country be worse off, actually worse off, if Fintan O’Toole and his chums in Democracy at Some Point in the Future tried to get elected but didn’t? Not even didn’t get elected now, or did get elected, but *tried* to get elected and didn’t? How could Ireland possibly be worse off?

Would the national debt increase? No. Would we all be conscripted into the infamous pan-European army, to fight General Zeb and his intergalactic clone army from the military labs of Alpha Centauri? No. Would corporation tax go up if Fintan O’Toole didn’t reach the quota? Hard to see causality. Would the US multi-nationals move out? Dearest Reader, the boys that run those corporations couldn’t pick Fintan O’Toole out of lineup of one.

The most sickening part of all this is that Fintan running would actually be a good thing. Politics is moribund in this country. The Taoiseach-elect’s media strategy seems to be to keep the head well down and hope he’s still ahead when the smoke of battle clears. Nothing else.

Debate on the country, how we went wrong, how we can stop that happening again, reflection on the nation on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the Rising? Forget about it. It’s Fine Gael’s turn, and that’s it. And when that hits the rocks Micheál Martin will take the salute outside the GPO in 2016 because that’s how the pendulum swings.

If his candidacy allowed even a chink of a changed dynamic from civil war politics ninety years after the civil war Fintan O’Toole’s bid would not have been in vain, even if he didn’t even save his deposit. But to try to defend it with this hopeless blather about “an inadequate effort wouldn’t be a noble failure. It would be worse than doing nothing at all because it would raise hopes and then dash them” is galling in the extreme.

Because it’s not about Fintan and his chums, and egos so huge they have their own gravitational pull. It’s about how we debate politics in this country – do we turn around to look outside the cave, or do we look at the shadows on the back wall forever and think that’s all there is and all there can be? Fintan would only have been the hammer, not the hand. But he doesn’t even seem capable of seeing that.

A lot of people will have read that Fintan O’Toole article on Saturday morning while listening to George Lee serve his penance on RTÉ with that appalling Business show on Radio 1. The programme is a shocking waste of Lee’s talents, and a grim reminder of what happens when you try to make a difference. It’s like Lee’s been put in the stocks in the town square, as a grim example to those who would think of rocking any cosy little boats.

But at least George never told us that the country is worse off because of his own inadequate effort, his own noble failure. At least he spared us that. George put his money where his mouth was. If he failed, he failed, but he never pretended the nation was worse off for his having made the attempt.

If you pass George in the stocks some time during the campaign, maybe you can give him an apple as he sits in stoical silence, or wipe some of the mud from his little face. Whatever else George Lee had, he had courage. That’s not common in Irish public life. And it seems an even rarer commodity this week.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Apology: to the Banner County of Clare

An Spailpín Fánach would like to take a moment in these stressful times to apologise to Bannermen and Bannerwomen the world over. The authorities have found a couple of hundred acres of the Cappawalla mountains in the county of Clare resting in An Spailpín’s account, and are demanding an explanation. In the light of which your faithful correspondent can only say: honest to God lads, it’s all been a complete misunderstanding.

Earlier this week the blog posted about the demise of Connacht rugby, with a not-every-expertly photoshopped representation of the Cinderella province, and thought no more about it. Only problem is, Cinders wasn’t posing before Connacht with the Gilbert size 5 ball tucked under her oxter. She was posing in front of Munster. Specifically, that part of Munster that is always the Banner.

A furious Bannerman’s wrath descended on the blog yesterday morning, demanding the return of that parcel stolen land to the parish of Kilfenora. An Spailpín is only happy to oblige with a new image, featuring a bit of land that An Spailpín is quite sure is in Connacht, and a heartfelt apology to Ger Loughnane, Biddy Earley, Eddie Lenihan, Maura O’Connell and Doctor Moosajee Bhamjee.

In reparation to that finest of Bannerman who raised the alarm, and in the name of friendship and fealty, a pledge of one glass of Irish stout, imperial pint measure, when next we meet. A time which I hope shan’t be long distant. Up the Banner.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Connacht Rugby Has No Future - Set the Cinderella Province Free

Munster’s destruction at the hands of Toulon last week was more than the end of an era in Irish sport and culture. It was also the end of the illusion that Connacht rugby has any future and should be closed down for the good of all concerned.

The IRFU are determined to talk up Connacht and the rugby writers of Ireland are clearly instructed to stay on message on the topic. But what the IRFU say exists in inverse proportion to what they do and, as anybody can tell you, talk is cheap. Actions count.

The IRFU announced some policy initiative or other before Christmas to give Connacht the support the IRFU claim it deserves as a development team. Seasoned watchers may have wondered what the big deal about this was, as a development is what Connacht were meant to be for the past decade or so. The ugly reality behind the high rhetoric came three days later, when three prominent players announced they were on the way out. People voted with their feet.

Neil Francis, though flawed in many respects, is an accurate barometer of Dublin 4 rugby. Francis has made it quite clear that the idea of a move to Connacht appals any right thinking, fin-headed rugby player inside the M50. And what the Munster defeat does is put the big provinces on the same side of the players. They have no interest in losing players that they need themselves.

Suppose you’re the coach of Munster. You’re watching the rapid aging of your golden generation and you’re coming to terms with the realisation that the younger generation aren’t coming through as you would have liked – O’Leary and Buckley, for instance. And now you’re being asked to sign off other up and coming players to give someone else a dig out? I don’t think so.

Prior to the introduction of the Italian teams this year every team in the Magners League last year had played at least one season of Heineken Cup bar Connacht. Every one. After ten years, that’s no longer a coincidence.

Connacht is falling between two stools. It’s not a development province, because while players have come through it’s been more or less by accident. The other provinces hang onto their own good players and would be mad not to – you didn’t see Ulster sending Paddy Wallace west to take some of the wrinkles out of his game.

And Connacht isn’t a viable professional entity because all the provinces are IRFU dependent, with their central contracts and what have you. Connacht is more dependent than the other three because there is a stronger history of rugby in the other three provinces but the IRFU will only spend enough money to kept Connacht barefoot and dressed in rags. Cinderella got less abuse from the ugly sisters.

And that’s not good enough. The rugby public of Connacht deserve better than to be treated like the Union’s mushrooms. Why persist with the idea of provinces anyway? Ulster is the only one that accurately reflects its people. Munster’s fanbase is more than the geographical province and Leinster’s is less.

The IRFU don’t need a Connacht and the good rugby people of Connacht don’t need being strung along by the IRFU. Set Cinders free from the scullery. She’s scrubbed enough pots by now.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Television and the Heart of the GAA

Martin Breheny wrote a remarkable article in yesterday’s Irish Independent about the coverage of Gaelic Games on television, specifically TG4. So remarkable, in fact, that your faithful correspondent started to wonder if Martin understood the GAA at all.

Martin started out with an old-fashioned swipe at binnbhriathra na Gaeilge, sean-teanga na nGael. “Since the majority of viewers have only a sketchy knowledge of the Irish language,” sniffs Martin, “they can't enjoy the coverage as much as if the commentaries were in English.”

Would it be wrong of An Spailpín Fánach to point out that a commentary in Mongolian would make it easier to enjoy the coverage compared to some of the stuff that’s come out of my television since poor Micheál Ó hEithir got sick, God be good to him?

Matters of personal taste aside, where Breheny’s argument falls down is in a matter of fact. Breheny compares the GAA TV product to the rugby and soccer products, but the comparison is not legitimate. He is not comparing like with like.

It’s like meeting your neighbour taking his dog for a walk and asking him why he doesn’t take the goldfish for a walk as well. Sure isn’t a goldfish just the same as a dog, really?

The advantage soccer and rugby have over inter-county Gaelic games is that soccer and rugby are professional games. They exist solely to entertain the public. Their schedules are set in such ways as to provide maximum reliable entertainment for the public – everything is honed to that end.

The GAA is not set up to provide entertainment in the same way. It annually provides the greatest sporting spectacle in the country, year after year, in the football and hurling championships, but this is co-incidental, rather than essential, to the GAA’s actual purpose.

If the provision of a sporting entertainment to compare with soccer or rugby were the GAA’s mission, there would have to be some changes made. The league and Championship would be amalgamated. A transfer market would have to be created, in order to ensure that every team had a chance to have good players, and not leave things to chance accidents of birth.

Pride in the jersey, be it ever so humble, counts for lilttle when the mob paid their dollars, are waiting to be entertained at the circus and it’s five minutes to showtime.

After a few years, the GAA would have changed completely. Some counties would have disappeared off the map entirely. It’d be like Aussie Rules without the money, or the League of Ireland with crowds. Or the current GAA without its soul. A Frankenstein’s monster wandering the Earth, wondering why it’s different.

Because providing a reliable sporting entertainment isn’t the GAA’s mission. If the GAA ever changes from that it will have ceased to be what it is, which is the single greatest common cause in our society.

All over the country, in the recession-hit and broken-hearted and bitter and divided Ireland of 2011, people give up their free evenings in front of the fire to take busloads of dirty, noisy kids back mountains and into glens to play busloads of other dirty, noisy kids in games referred by fat men with red faces with good hearts that mightn’t really be fit for running around any more. And they all do it for a chicken dinner at Christmas and an empty promise of an All-Ireland ticket if the county team goes on a run.

Of course, volunteers train kids to play soccer and rugby too. But it’s not the same. The connection isn’t as strong. One in a thousand soccer stars might get an apprenticeship with Dagenham United. The good rugby players will find out how hard it is to get a paying gig in a country with two and three-quarter professional teams.

But the GAA star still meets you at funerals and stands next to you in the queue at the Centra and has Ruby Walsh’s horse and high hopes in the Grand National sweep in the local.

People talk about the heart of the GAA being a full house in a floodlit Croke Park. It’s not. It’s a gang of kids and a fat man on the side of a mountain, and the kids beginning to realise that they’re from somewhere, not anywhere, and that matters. Long may it thrive.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Brian Cowen - There Let the Way Appear

Brian Cowen, that unlucky man, should change his party piece from Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore to Nearer, My God, to Thee. The tune that serenaded the sinking of the unsinkable ship seems a little more appropriate for the leader of the Legion of the Rearguard at this extraordinary moment in Irish public life.

When the Titanic sank, ninety-nine years ago this coming April, the band played on like it was just another night for the luxury liner. Yesterday evening, Brian Cowen addressed the media and the nation like a man that is utterly unaware of the iceberg that’s looming over him and his party.

The four days gone by have been Brian Cowen’s Premiership in microcosm. The nation wonders what’s going on and why it’s been kept in the dark. By the time Brian Cowen did turn up to state his case, the audience had long given up on him.

Yesterday evening, it took Brian Cowen fifteen minutes to say what he was there to say, that he would hold a motion of confidence in his own leadership on Tuesday, something he could have said in ninety seconds. But after fifteen minutes, such viewers as had tuned in had moved on, to graze the long acres of Sky or MTV.

The arguments that Brian Cowen is making now – refuting the notion that Fianna Fáil put party above country, explaining the strategy behind the bank bailouts and the rest of it – are arguments that he should have made two years ago. But they weren’t made two years ago, and that fight is lost. The horse is bolted, the milk is spilled, the field is lost. The debate has moved on.

What Brian Cowen does not seem to realise is that the goalposts have moved. A civilised debate on policy isn’t going to happen in the coming election. The people are in the mood for blood and Cowen doesn’t seem to know it. The hammers that built the construction boom are now building gallows in every constituency with the letters FF carved into the crossbeam as the people wait for revenge.

Brian Cowen may think he’s be Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies in the coming general election, coming out to kick some ass in his best Biffo mode, but he’s wrong. Whoever the leader of Fianna Fáil will be, he’ll be more like James Franco in 127 Hours, having to hack off a limb for the rest of the body to survive.

Brian Cowen has been treated shabbily in public debate in the past ten years. Abuse has been heaped upon him that he doesn’t deserve, abuse that stepped well beyond the bounds of robust political debate. Commentators have lined up to take free shots that were never answered.

But Cowen’s tragedy is that he has never taken the criticism seriously. He seems to see the criticism as beneath contempt and not worthy of the nation. It’s hard to believe a politician – a Fianna Fáil politician – could be so very naïve. Some intellectual from Trinity in the Labour party representing Dún Laoghaire might think that nobody listens to the baying of the mob. But an FF man? Incroyable.

Communication is the lifeblood of politics. Brian Cowen should have been on the television and radio constantly from when the crisis started in 2008 to reassure the people. His press staff should have had spokespeople in ever media to explain what was going on, and to put out fires before they raged out of control. But it didn’t happen.

There was an early disinclination to address the nation because of the legacy of the Charlie Haughey “living beyond our means” speech but that went right out the window with the bank bailout and the country suddenly found itself on a very steep learning curve to understand high finance and international banking.

The people never had a chance. What do any of us know about bond markets, really? This is just down to a matter of trust now, and for Brian Cowen all trust is lost. The battle is over. The people want to ease the pain, if only for a moment. They want revenge.

History will sit in judgement on Brian Cowen, and I hope it’s kind to a good man who’s talents were overwhelmed by circumstances. If he survives the vote on Tuesday, he’s mortally wounded anyway, and is just staggering through the bushes now on instinct. Only history can ease his pain.

As for his party, if Fianna Fáil elect a new leader before the election, he or she may be the shortest lived leader in the party’s history, as the parliamentary party that assembles after the election will be vastly different from the party that may depose Cowen and elect a new leader this week. If there is a party left to assemble in the first place.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Team Micheál or Team Tubs: Who Are Fianna Fáil Really?

An exasperated journalist remarked on the Tonight with Vincent Browne show last year that it was a mystery to her how anyone, ever, votes or voted for the Fianna Fáil party.

This question has stuck in An Spailpín’s head since. Because there are two mysteries here: the first is the journalist’s original question, just who people this entity known as Fianna Fáil, and the second is why isn’t their identity known to a political reporter with a major national newspaper?

Fianna Fáil has governed this country for three of every four years of the party’s existence. While this may change at the next election, it has been a fact until now that there has never been a constituency in the state without at least one Fianna Fáil TD since the party’s first election to Government.

How can someone aspire to expertise on Irish politics and have no idea either who votes Fianna Fáil or why they do so? Is it not like being a chef and never having seen a chicken?

Do parallel Irelands exist, with no interaction between them? The world of the Vincent Browne panel fretting over inequality in their south Dublin demesnes, and the world that elects Fianna Fáil governments, year after year? Where do they cross over? Do they cross over at all?

Irish politics is a mass of contradictions. Ireland has never elected a socialist government, yet the public service is huge. How did this happen? If policy doesn’t drive Irish elections, what does? If you wish to be involved in politics, how do you decide which party to join? James Lawless describes the typical Fianna Fáil spear-carrier on his blog, but he does not point out why these GAA people and meals on wheel people and so on join FF specifically and not Fine Gael, or Labour, or Sinn Féin, or one of Richard Boyd Barrett's (many) groups. Is it simply tribal?

The comedians who perform as Après Match appeared in character on The Late Late Show before Christmas. Barry Murphy appeared as a character called Micheál, whom many would see as the archetypal Fianna Fáil backwoodsman. But he wasn’t the most Fianna Fáil-y person on the Late Late that night. Not by a long chalk.

If bloodlines count for anything in Irish politics – and they always have so far – the most Fianna Fáil person on the Late Late Show that night, or any night, was your host, Ryan Tubridy. He is Fianna Fáil on his father and his mother’s side. His maternal grandfather, Todd Andrews, was one of the founding architects of the party. His brother is a councillor and two of his cousins are TDs. How much more Fianna Fáil can you get?

In what way does the Fianna Fáil ethos manifest in Ryan Tubridy? Tubridy comes from a current affairs background professionally, and to have missed current affairs discussion in his private life growing up would surely have been impossible. It would be like growing up on the land and never hearing of headage. But the popular image of Fianna Fáil in the media is of Micheál the Backwoodsman – it is not of urbane, smooth, Dean-Martin-listenin’, finger-clickin’, pints-in-the-Bailey drinkin’ Ryan Tubridy. But they are both said to be Fianna Fáil the same way a trout is said to be a fish.

Is Team Micheál or Team Tubs the real spirit of the party? Or does Fianna Fáil exist a bridge between these demographics, neither one extreme or the other, like a half and half latte and pint of stout? What common interest do they campaign on? Do the Tubridys of the world get shouted down at meetings in the smoke-filled rooms by the Micheáls? Or do the Micheáls pump the wheels while the Tubridys ride the bikes?

There is a doorstopper history of the Workers Party on sale currently. 688 pages. Where are the histories of Fianna Fáil, the single most influential Irish political party since the foundation of the state?

Dick Walsh wrote one in the mid-eighties which is out of print, out of date and probably not that good in the first place. Pat Leahy, political correspondent of the Sunday Business Post, wrote a gossipy recent history called Showtime, but didn’t try to join the dots on the stories that he was told about what where all Irish politics are decided – behind closed doors. The peculiar attitude to the notion of collective cabinet responsibility with regard to the setting of the budget seemed worthy of further discussion, to say the very least of it, but it raised nary a flag. Extraordinary.

We are told that the nation is heading to an election that may be a watershed in the history of an Ireland that has taken her place among the nations of the Earth, and it seems we really don’t know for whom we’re voting. Fianna Fáil’s struggle to not be wiped out is one of the stories of the election, and yet we don’t really know who Fianna Fáil are – Tubridys, Micheáls, or someone else again entirely. There’s at least one writer in a national newspaper who badly needs to find out. To say nothing of the rest of us.