Monday, September 26, 2011

Civil War Politics is Alive and Well in Ireland

The Presidential election, which had been so boring but has now sprung into spiteful life, has already proved one thing beyond all doubt: civil war politics is alive, well and thriving in Ireland.

Martin McGuinness’ entry, and his very strong chance of victory, has galvanized a moribund Fine Gael campaign. All week they have queued up to take shots – ho, ho – at McGuinness and all he stands for. While Fianna Fáil’s footsoldiers are much more sanguine about the prospect of President McGuinness. This is the insurmountable difference between the parties; their attitudes to the North, and bloody history of island.

Fianna Fáil have been deathly quiet about McGuinness, even though it is they who are in greater political danger from the rise of Sinn Féin. But even though their existence is threatened by the rise of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil apparatchiks can’t muster the level of vitriol that blows up like a volcano in every Fine Gael heart at the very thought of a Shinner about the place.

Part of that Fianna Fáil quietude could be a hangover from another exercise in shooting themselves in the foot. Fianna Fáil’s declining to run a candidate in the Presidential election made sense in that the election of the First Ribbon-Cutter (thank you, Deputy Flanagan) is of secondary importance to preparing 2016 General Election candidates in the Local Elections of 2014. But they can never have imagined that Sinn Féin would pull off such a masterstroke as the entry of McGuinness. McGuinness’ candidacy has changed everything.

It is interesting to wonder if Sinn Féin would have run McGuinness if Fianna Fáil had run a candidate – An Spailpín suspects they would have kept their powder dry and not have brought so big a gun to the front. But that’s for the historians to worry about later.

In the present, the Fianna Fáil top brass can only lick yet another wound while knowing that a very big chunk of the fanbase will follow the flag and the republic, standing with Emmet and Wolfe Tone. The fact its someone else beneath the mast is of secondary importance.

While Fine Gael brings the fight to the Shinners, just like always. Fine Gael is the party that bedded the institutions of the state into the fabric of the country during the Dála of the first ten years of independence. As such, Fine Gael tend to defend those institutions with a religious zeal that Fianna Fáil have never been able to muster, despite their greater time in power. This Fine Gael zeal is especially interesting in this time of national crisis, when the institutions of the state have so clearly let us down.

The nasty sectarianism already evidenced in the campaign – that while Martin McGuinness is good enough for Nordies he is utterly out of the question for the good folk of the south – is perhaps another reflection of the reverence in which Fine Gael hold the institutions of the (southern) state. While they view the North as a failed state, Fine Gael hold the southern state to be just fine.

Well, it’s not. It’s really not. The evidence of the crash is that the institutions of the southern state have failed her people, and the fact that the new broom government are using a very old broom indeed for all their promises is something that can only fill the average citizen with despair.

Another reason why McGuinness is so attractive a candidate. The political establishment’s harping on about McGuinness’ past shows they are out of touch with the Irish present, where more and more people are beginning to realise that there may be more than one failed state on the island.

The First Ribbon-Cutter election isn’t that important in itself, but may be the beginning of a national conversation about who we are and who we want to be. The good and decent Unionists of the North were asked to put up with a lot for the sake of what they were assured was progress and a new tomorrow. For the people of the South to say that’s what’s good enough for the North isn’t good enough for the South suggests we have still to learn the lesson of history after all these bloody years. God help us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier - Why?

A book isn’t a film and a film isn’t a book. This eternal verité is proved once more by the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie currently on general release. It’s beautiful to look it, superbly acted and scrupulously loyal to the original book. It’s just that as a movie, it’s not very good.

If you haven’t read the original John Le Carré book or are unfamiliar with the plot the odds are against you either figuring out what’s going on or why what’s going on matters. In their determination to be loyal to the book the producers of the movie have left out its heart. Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth – all of them are wonderful in the movie but they are dancers without a tune, moving to no purpose.

The only art form less subtle than film is opera. You can have subtle moments certainly but movies and opera are both written in great broad strokes. The media demand them.

To adapt a novel, the screenwriter has to boil the boil down to its very bones, and then rebuild a film structure, rather than a novel structure on those bones. You're chasing fools' gold if you try to recreate the novel in the screenplay - they're too different a beast. You have respect the conventions of each genre, and accept that what works in one won't work in the other.

What is Tinker, Tailor about? It’s not about the mole in British intelligence. The mole is incidental. Tinker, Tailor is about a man, George Smiley, who is an abject failure at everything he does bar one thing. He is absolutely gifted at his job.

Smiley has lost his job at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor and the whole narrative is about him getting his old job back. He has to do the only thing he’s good at. Smiley knows nothing else. He has no other fulfillment.

That’s what Tinker, Tailor is about, at its most fundamental. And every time you’re looking at something other than that journey of George Smiley to get his old job back the audience is being lost. The school scenes are some of the (many) joys of the book, but in the film they slow up the action. They have to go. Ricki Tarr has to go.

There are marvellous scenes there. Smiley’s reminiscence about meeting Karla, his Soviet opposite number, is moved to his hotel rather than the motorway café in the book, but it still works very well. The Christmas party motif in the film to reflect the more innocent days of the circus is inspired.

But in their effort to get everything into the film, the essence of the book is lost, and that’s a pity. It’s a noble failure of course, and the movie is certainly worth seeing in a way that so very many movies aren’t. But if you really want to treat yourself the price of two pints will get you the book. That really is a treat.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Lifting in the Lineout - The Rugby World Cup Format is Wrong

One of the reasons that rugby has adapted so well to professionalism is its willingness to change its laws as the game evolves. And not only that, rugby is willing to try a law for a season and then change it back if it doesn’t work. The administrators are always willing to do what’s best for the game.

Which makes it all the more of a pity that they haven’t tweaked the format of the World Cup. A phony war will be conducted all through the group stages, leaving the stakes impossibly high come the knockout stages where the safety net is suddenly swept away.

There are three divisions in world rugby. In the first division, there are the super powers – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France. In the second division, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Argentina. In the third division, there’s everyone else.

Only a first division team can win the World Cup. A second division team can’t win it, but on their day they can stop someone else from winning it. The third division teams, God help them, are cannon fodder, and nothing else.

This means that forty group games will be played at the World Cup in order to reduce the top ten rugby playing nations to eight. That’s not the most efficient way of going about it.

In amateur days, it would be lovely for the USA to play New Zealand – they were all amateurs anyway and, even though the USA would still lose, there wasn’t the same air of businesslike formality about the All-Blacks running in try after try. There was still a place for magic and romance, no matter how thin a sliver.

But that’s all gone now as the professionals go about the expert dismemberment of the amateurs, and then have to trust all to eighty minutes of on-the-day inspiration from the quarters on. The pool games are too little while the playoffs are too much.

What’s the solution? There isn’t one, really. Perhaps the first ten teams in the world should play the World Cup as a league, each with one game against the other, and then some sort of semi-final and final to keep it interesting? It seems the fairest way.

The problem would be that the sheer physicality of modern rugby makes that impossible. Some players might manage the twelve game slate, but at a horrific cost to their health in later life.

And so we’re left with this strange shadow-boxing tournament for the first forty games of the World Cup and then the manic intensity of the final seven (let’s not count the third place play-off – nobody else does). But I suppose it’s the only World Cup we have and it’s better than nothing.

Of the five contenders, your Spailpín wouldn’t begrudge any of them, really. Australia isn’t even vaguely a rugby country but when it comes to the World Cup the Wallabies are unquestioned specialists.

New Zealand and South Africa are the greatest rugby cultures in the world (as would Wales be, if only it had the resources available to the other two) and An Spailpín has a lot of time for Martin Johnson’s heroic refusal to apologise for being English. Love him or hate him, the man’s got style.

And France. Always France. One of the greatest rugby nations, and the only one of the great traditional powers that was never part of the British Empire. That’s part of what makes them so different and so exciting.

But while it would be lovely to see France finally win a World Cup, the New Zealanders’ longing for the title, especially now on home soil, has become so acute that we are now in the peculiar situation of the favorites being the people’s champions too – to see New Zealand frustrated in every tournament is becoming cruel to everybody. (With the possible exception of the Australians, of course. Aussies are like that).

Ireland? Ireland should progress from their group, and then stand a fighting chance against South Africa (if things go according to seed), the Tri-Nations country against which the Irish have the best record. Not getting out of the group would be disappointing, but hardly novel. Losing the quarter-final would be par for the course.

But as the twilight quickly descends on the Golden Generation of O’Gara, O’Connell and O’Driscoll, it would be wonderful if they could win the quarter-final and claim one more page of history before night falls. Because when night does fall, it could last a long, long time.

Ka mate, ka mate...

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Kinda d'État - Ireland's Contribution to Governance

There’s a great line in the Third Man movie where Orson Welles’ Harry Lime remarks on the different gifts the blood-drenched Italy of the Borgias and the orderly, methodical and godly Swiss brought to civilisation. We are lucky the arch-cynic did not cast his gaze more westerly, to this green isle of Erin.

If he had he would have discovered a nation that, having waited eight hundred years to take her place among the nations of the earth, now chooses to waste everything that so many died for like one of those forty and fifty stone abominations of humanity on reality TV, slowly gorging themselves to death.

Monday night’s history of the Rise and Fall of Fianna Fáil provided the keystone. Not because of the broad picture, which remains both sickeningly familiar and heartbreaking elusive, but because of one small detail. A passing comment that in itself sums up just why, in that phrase of our times, we are where we are.

Suzanne Kelly, daughter of Captain James Kelly, claimed on Monday night that the importation of arms to help the Republic’s nationalist brethren in Northern Ireland was sanctioned at the very highest level. The sanction was withdrawn when the dove faction in cabinet triumphed over the hawk, and the hawks – Blaney, Boland, Haughey – were then left out in cold to wither and die. The doves didn’t count for Charles Haughey’s powers of resilience and recovery of course.

In any other country, in any other democratic state, this would be hold the front page news. Was Ireland closer to war in 1970 over the Northern troubles than the USA was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Why isn’t it this news? Where are the scholarly studies? Why doesn’t anyone care that Ireland was on the verge of a renewal of war with the old enemy?

Many hypotheses have been proposed in the misery of the past three years as to how the nation has come to this sorry state. Why wasn’t anyone watching the road? But perhaps the real answer is that nobody’s ever been watching the road, ever.

Maybe the truth is that Ireland has always been governed by luck and flaw, as the state lurches from one crisis to another while whatever cabinet is in power hopes to God there isn’t some sort of karmic Garda checkpoint at the next turn in the road.

An Spailpín is still stunned by Ms Kelly’s remarks on Monday, and that we, the nation, are completely at ease with the fact that we don’t definitely know what happened during the Arms Trial. More than two score years later, with nearly all the principles dead, was Ireland on the verge of a coup d’état?

Or was it a Kinda d’État, like every other damned thing that’s happened in this blighted country? Another half-arsed rebellion, like Emmet’s or Dwyer’s or, God help us, the Fenian invasion of Canada in 1870? Or the one that we’ll be celebrating ourselves in five years’ time? How did that one work out, on a scale of one to ten?

Does anybody take Irish governance seriously? If we did, we would damn well know just how close we came to war, bloody and horrible, in the late sixties. But we don’t. There is a cabal which knows, the elite families by whom this republic has been governed since its foundation. But the citizens? They know about as much about how this country is actually governed as a mountain goat knows about the second law of thermodynamics.

And we the citizens aren’t getting any smarter. Public debate on the great issues of the day – debt, secularism, education, sovereignty – is like seeing dancers in a nightclub strobe light. No action connects to the next. Each faction bays to the others across the empty and barren wastes where developed nations share ideas and move together.

But that land of intellectual ferment and growth is fallow ground in Ireland, ground where no faction ever learns anything from the other, from experience or from any damn thing at all, but simply seeks solace from repeating its own shibboleths over and over again, while the country slips slowly beneath the waves.

It’s whiskey in my tea from here on in. I can’t bear much more of this.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Kilkenny Reaffirm Their Majesty

One of the many great features about hurling as a game is that the best team almost always win. There’s no way to circumvent the spirit of the game, the way you can pack defenses in soccer or kill the ball in rugby or upset Pat Spillane in football.

Hurling is like boxing in that there’s no-where to hide. The game is about fourteen man-on-man battles and if the majority of your team win their individual battles, you win the game. All else is noise.

This is why Kilkenny won their fifth Liam McCarthy Cup in six years yesterday. Because man for man they played better than Tipperary on the day.

As a Mayoman, your Spailpín Fánach knows enough about hurling to know that he knows nothing about hurling, but Kilkenny’s performance yesterday was breath-taking in its primal magnificence. Forget the many arts of the game; the All-Ireland was won in the fiery bellies of the Kilkennymen, who would broke no failure on the great stage.

The normally impassive Brian Cody was clearly delighted yesterday. How he must have nursed the hurt and disappointment from last year to bring it to its white hot focus yesterday. Richie Hogan said in the post-match interview that the team promised themselves they would never feel as low again as they felt last year, and they did not let themselves down.

Christy O’Connor wrote in the Sunday Times on Sunday morning that Kilkenny were royally annoyed not only that they lost last year, but that they weren’t given credit for winning the year before. They knew that the reputation of this Kilkenny generation, hailed as the best of all time before they lost to Tipperary last year, would slide further down history’s scale if they lost again to Tipperary.

O’Connor remarked particularly that they really didn’t care for younger Tipperary players lording it over their neighbours on the banks of Mooncoin, and they stored away that resentment to when it could be of the most use.

The first portent was the crowd. Kilkenny, who have been under the radar all year while the press lionized different players from different counties, came out to a much louder roar than Tipperary. The cats were awake, and had been sharpening their claws.

It’s so hard for sportsmen to catch up to the pitch of a game if they are behind at the start. Tipperary were not ready for the challenge that Kilkenny had to offer and, by the time they showed their own undoubted class, Kilkenny were already licking the cream from their whiskers and thinking of long winter nights of satisfaction and Smithwicks in Langton’s and likewise hostelries.

It’s all the more credit to Cody and the magnificent team he’s created, the perfect blend of skill and aggression. Shefflin is a genius of course, but when An Spailpín is boring his co-inmates in the nursing home as the sun sets, it’s Tommy Walsh that will remain the avatar of Brian Cody’s Kilkenny.

Walsh isn’t even that big, but he can’t be beaten by high or low balls. All are sucked into his possession to be redistributed where they will do the maximum damage to the opposition. In an alley fight between Walsh and a hood with a broken bottle, one could only feel sorry and pity for the bottle. The hood, of course, should have known better when he saw the distinctive red helmet. They are the tough cats that you meet in alleys or on the playing fields of Erin, and they are not easily beaten. More luck to them.