Saturday, October 29, 2011

Five Post-Polling Day Questions

Michael D Higgins is the President Elect, and the country could have done worse. But it’s been a filthy campaign, and another indictment of a political system that is failing the people. Here are five questions that are worth pondering as we turn back the clocks and move on to the next great political crisis, Budget 2011.

Will We Ever See an Election That Isn’t Decided by Process of Elimination Again?
Baggage allowance is now more important to the Irish electorate than it is to Ryanair. Enda Kenny become Taoiseach by process of elimination – the fact he rose in the polls after refusing to appear on Vincent Browne’s debate is proof of that. And now the Presidential Election has been decided by the same metric. Gallagher supporters realized that the man wasn’t up to the hope so they stepped away and went for the only possibility of stopping him.

And could have been worse. Enda Kenny is a good and honest man. Michael D is a good and honest man, and he also did his bit for the country in founding TG4 and helping keep the language alive for another few years. Michael D deserves the win for that alone.

But it is deeply depressing that leaders are elected for their ability to disgust the electorate the least rather than their ability to inspire the electorate the most. That is very depressing indeed.

Why Did Sinn Féin Choose to Elect Michael D?
Sinn Féin didn’t win the Presidential election, but they certainly decided it. Prior to the Frontline debate, Seán Gallagher was home and hosed. We know this from three sources – the opinions polls coming up to the last weekend of the election, the RTÉ Red C recall poll that showed 28% of voters changed their minds in the final days, and that 70% of that 28% voted for Michael D, and the pattern of postal votes that were mailed before the Frontline debate showed Gallagher the clear winner.

But the Frontline sank him. The question from Martin McGuinness dropped Gallagher to the floor, and some hysterical media coverage in the papers administered the coup de grace.

The question is why – what’s in it for Sinn Féin? Their own high hopes blew up early in the campaign when a combination of wretched hypocrisy and hateful self-interest showed that partition is now as much part of the Irish psyche as porter and giving out about the English (the irony is lost on the people, of course). The Nation sees itself as a twenty-six county entity only, and wants nothing to do with the North. Nothing.

A harsh lesson for Sinn Féin, but they could have stood back and let Higgins and Gallagher duke it out. They didn’t. Martin McGuinness ended Gallagher as a viable entity. He could have stood by, but didn’t.

Why? What’s in it for Sinn Féin? Is it because they wanted to reach out to their fellow revolutionary socialist? Did the very thought of Gallagher appall them and they decided that they while they could not themselves win they could stop a man for winning? Do they think it sets them up better for the next general election, as the sworn enemy of cronyism where-ever they may find it? And will we ever get to the bottom of the ghost tweet? Questions, questions. It would be the nice if the media investigated even some of this but your faithful correspondent shan’t be holding his breath.

What Was David Norris Thinking?
The biggest loser of the whole campaign is undoubtedly David Norris. There wouldn’t even have been an election it weren’t for him – there could have been cross party support for Séamus Heaney, for instance, and the country could have saved itself a lot of money and angst.

Instead, Norris demanded his election and he can rue it for the rest of his days. For the first half of this year there was universal coverage of what a fine President Norris would make. The campaign exposed this view as hopelessly wrong. David Norris is an innocent, and he suffered the fate of all innocents when they leave the protection of their nursery. Slaughter. God love him.

Should Alan Shatter Consider His Position?
The surreptitious referenda campaigns were more serious than the Presidential Election. The President doesn’t actually do anything, of course, but those referenda could have visited untold disaster on the populace.

The Government’s attempt to sneak these complex and important referenda past the people by bundling them with the Presidential Election, like a schoolboy trying to sneak a copy of Nuts magazine into the pages of his Farmer’s Journal, was shameful and disgraceful.

But even more worryingly, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter’s bizarre response to the concerns of eight – eight – former Attorneys General should be addressed. Shatter dismissed the concerns of all eight men, who were appointed by different Governments and are of different political affiliations, as “nonsense,” and nastily suggested that some of the former Attorneys General had other agendae. Shatter did not spell out what those other agendae were or which of the eight held them, because that would have seen the Minister in the High Court in need of an attorney himself.

But it was an astonishing attack by the Minister for Justice on men who have sat at cabinet and have had significant roles in governing the country. What does it say about Shatter’s regard for the role of Attorney General itself?

For the Minister for Justice to disagree with one AG is fair enough, not least if the Minister is a lawyer himself and knows whereof he speaks. But to dismiss eight of them seems rather like a tipping point number, and dismissive of the whole office in the first place. Does Minister Shatter take advice from his own AG? Does he choose that advice a la carte? Will he dismiss eight opinions until he finds a ninth that he agrees with, and then preface his remarks to Dáil Éireann with “The Government, on the advice of the Attorney General…”?

Should the State have an Attorney General in the first place or a yes-man like The Bird O’Donnell? And perhaps more importantly, how can a Minister for Justice continue in his position when he holds so little regard for past holders of the office of Attorney General? It really is quite astonishing.

Should We Look at the Presidential Nomination Process?
Yes. Specifically, we should look at either abolishing the office entirely or having Presidents appointed by the Oireachtas. The country has been through a campaign that has been expensive in money, cheap in practice and mean in spirit. We don’t need to do that again. The fiscal suffering is bad enough without the damage done to our souls by so vicious a fight over so trivial an office. Enough. Let this be the last.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Think the Rain is Bad? What Will We Do When the Snow Returns?

Yesterday’s flooding in Dublin gives a nervous Spailpín Fánach pause to wonder about what exact plans have been made for the return of the snow.

We all know it’s coming. The ads for shoe ice grips for shoes have been running on the Irish Times home page for weeks. And it’s reasonable to ask just what the local authorities and the great ship of state herself are doing to get ready for another harsh winter in Ireland.

The first really hard snap in January of last year came out of the clear blue sky. The buses being cancelled in Dublin was annoying, but understandable. Who had ever seen it this bad?

The second time, eleven months later in November, was a little more annoying. When the temperatures dropped below freezing and Dublin Bus cancelled its services, for the “greater safety of the population,” we wondered just why they weren’t more prepared this time, and if it’s really acceptable to have a workforce have to make its own way home when the weather gets bad. They had ten months to think about it, after all.

Which means there are now no excuses for a third time. If the local authorities are doing their jobs, they will have plans made for when the ice hits. Because it’s coming, just as surely as God made little green apples.

They’re prepared across the water. The London Times had a report yesterday detailing the provisions that Her Majesty’s Government have taken for the safety of the citizens of the realm. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr George Osbourne, is carrying out an austerity program in Britain not dissimilar to the one here but even though road maintenance budgets have been cut, the British have still upped their salt budget.

The British, like ourselves, have a number of different agencies in charge of different aspects of transportation, but all the British agencies have already done their bit to keep the show on the road. Network Rail has spent £60 million pounds to keep the railway working, including investing in six snow carriages, decked out with ploughs, scrapers and brushes.

Heathrow has spent £34 million to get ready for the snow, an investment that includes the cost of 185 snow clearing vehicles. Gatwick has spent eight million pounds to buy, amongst other things, fourteen snow ploughs and over half a million litres of anti-icing agents.

The British local authorities have a stockpile of 1.4 million tonnes of salt. The highway agency has another quarter of a million, and there’s a Government National Strategic reserve supply of 450,000 tonnes.

Not only that, but the different local authorities realise they are in a different ballgame and so are deciding to salt less roads and send the trucks out in colder conditions in order to make supplies last longer. London’s Lambeth Council salted at one degree Centigrade last year. This year, the trucks don’t go out until it hits zero. It makes a difference, and the salt lasts longer.

Devon County Council has reduced the roads it will salt from 1,600 to 1,520, a five per cent reduction, to conserve supply. They know that climate change is now here, and they are making adjustments.

An Spailpín Fánach looks forward to the announcement from Minister for Transport, Mr Leo Varadkar, TD, and from Minister for Local Government, Mr Phil Hogan, TD, about what the Government’s plans are to prepare for this year’s harsh weather. Or will they just shrug their shoulders and blame Mr Chopra, like they always do?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Deireadh Seachtaine na nGiobal

Agus cad atá chomh leadránach sa tsaol ná machnamh seanfhir? Níl tada. Bhíodh ár n-óige againn uilig, ach cé go raibh na h-ainmneacha difríochta bíonn na scéalta mar a gcéanna, beag nó mór.

É sin raite, bhraith mé lámh fuair ar mo chroí nuair a chuala mé go bhfuil deireadh tagtha go deo ar Seachtain na nGiobal, Gaillimh. Bhí an deireadh fógraithe le fada ach ag an am céanna, baintear geit nuair a thagann sé.

Scíobhfar roinnt faoi chomh brónach atá an deireadh seo agus go bhfuil an t-airgead bailithe ar son na mbocht níos tábhachtaí na pléaracha na seachtaine. Ná bac leis an seafóid sin. Is dócha go bhfuil croithe roinnt na gníomhaire ar Seachtain na nGiobal san áit ceart ach bíonn coirp na mac léinn ins an t-aon áit amháin - istigh sa mBéar, agus iad ag iarraidh an méid is mó portair a chaitheamh siar mar ab fhéidir leo.

Bliain amháin tháinig cúpla boc chomh fada le Coiste Seachtaine na nGiobal le pléan. Tógfaidís HiaceFord Transit éigin ar iasacht, tabharfaidís cuairt ar gach contae in Éirinn, bailóidís airgead ar son Seachtain na nGiobal agus fillfidh siad ar ais arís. A leithreoir, fuaireadar an veain agus bhailigh siad an t-airgead ach ní dóigh liom gur fhilleadar riamh, agus tá beagnach dhá scór bliain caite anois.

Ba rógairí tofa iad, ar ndóigh, ach bhíodh laochra ann freisin. Bhíodh sé sconna déag taobh thiar Béar an Choláiste nuair a bhíodh an Beár sa gCearnóg Mhór. Ba é an Furstenburg an ceann a bhí sa triú áit ón gclé - níl fíos agam cén fáth ar fhan sin im' aigne, ach fan pé scéal é.

Bhíodh na sé sconna déag sin mar dushlán os comhair cúpla cara an Spailpín 'sna laethanta 'tá imithe. Agus Seachtain na nGiobal amháin, shroicheadar go n-déanfaidís iarracht pionta amháin a ól ó gach uile sconna.

Más mhaith leat sé phionta déag portair a ól, beidh fadhb agat. Is dhá bhuicéad beora iad sé chinn déag. Ach tá an caighdeán i bhfad níos áirde nuair atá meascán óil ann. B'fhéidir gurb é sin an fáth gur fhan an Furstenberg im' aigne. Tháinig sé ró-luath sa rás. Bíonn an Furstenberg searbh sa gcéad áit, agus níor díoladh mórán de ag an am, rud a rinneadh an beoir níos seirbhe arís. Bhíodh sé mar bhualadh ar an gclaí Foinavon in Aintree tar éis an chéad staid.

Ach bhíodh cairde agamsa agus boilg iontu cosuil le umair mhúnlaigh, báil ó Dhia orthu. Theip ar an gcuid is mó ach d'éirigh le beirt laoch pionta a ól ó gach uilig ceann de sconna Beáir an Choláiste san aon lá amháin.

Tógadh fear amháin abhaile, tinn a dhóthain ar ndóigh ach slán beo. Tháinig imní ar an gcomhluadar nuair a tugadh faoi deireadh nach raibh an fear eile ann ach fuaireadh slán ina leaba féin é níos déanaí tar éis seilg sa gcathair. Bíonn siad beirt socraithe agus ag obair go dian anois, agus táim ag súil iarraidh orthu cad a shíleann siad faoin deireadh ré seo. Is aoibheann bheatha an scólaire, ach tagann deireadh air i gcónaí.

Monday, October 17, 2011

We Are Sam Smyth

The ironic thing about it all, of course, is that Sam Smyth’s show isn’t even that good in the first place. Look at this picture of Smyth and Alastair Campbell – think that’s the picture of a man about to grill Campbell on dodgy goings-on in Whitehall during the Blair years?

It always seemed that Smyth’s guests were drawn from a very small circle, and the show was a sort of dry dinner party held ten hours before its natural time. There was never any danger of real world experience breaking in; it was for people who inhabit that awful Irish Bermuda triangle whose points are the Shelbourne Bar, Paddy Guilbaud’s and Dáil Éireann, and for those elect alone.

But even that has now proven too much. Sam Smyth, a man who does so very little to rattle cages, has found that even a little can finish a man.

It all goes back to 1997 and Smyth’s role in breaking the story that lead to the Moriarty Tribunal. Smyth got a lot of praise for his work as an investigative journalist, but the reality is someone picked up the phone and spilled the beans to start the ball rolling in the first place.

If that phone call hadn’t been made, just how hard would the awarding of the Esat license have been investigated by the Irish media? About as hard as the awarding of the drilling rights to Shell in Rossport, or of planning permission for three hundred house estates outside villages with a population of 150, not counting the idiot.

Maybe Ireland is too small to have a functioning media. Everybody gets to know everybody else very quickly, and it’s hard to be objective about people with whom you socialize. There are so few media outlets, it’s very easy for the powerful to blackball someone and put them out of a job. Investigative journalism of the Woodward and Bernstein school is cripplingly expensive. And of course, like any job, youthful enthusiasm wanes and it becomes easier to go through the motions after time.

The problem is that if Ireland is too small to have a functioning media it is also too small to have an independent government. This cannot be emphasized enough.

It is impossible for the people to make informed decisions about who governs them unless there is a mechanism by which the people can inform themselves about the alternatives. That ability to make informed decisions is now under its greatest threat since independence. What can be done?

The Government talks a lot of hot air about press freedom but the reality is no Government wants a free press. Governments want to control news, so the existence of press barons is in their interest. Once the baron is on board, the rest will follow – vide Blair’s courting of Rupert Murdoch across the Irish sea.

It’s up to the people to demand what the powerful will not give. Right now Smyth is doomed. They’ve put a fork in him, and they’re going to replace his cuddly beltway chats with a PR consultant who likes to talk about motor cars that people up to their snouts in negative equity can’t afford.

But there are still journalists of influence and repute who can challenge for press freedom. Wouldn’t it be great if Matt Cooper and George Hook used their drivetime radio shows tomorrow to explain the importance of a free press to their listenership, and just how vital a free press is to a democracy? Wouldn’t that be so much better than just taking a shilling? An Spailpín is looking forward to seeing people taking stands and putting their money where their mouths are.

I am Sam Smyth. And so are you. Don’t let them keep us in the dark. Don’t let them.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Post Saeculum Aureum: Where to Now for Irish Rugby?

Ireland’s World Cup was a failure. Anything you read elsewhere, about great memories and wins over Australia and the rest, is all blather.

Look at the picture of Brian O’Driscoll at the post-match press conference. He knows better than anyone just what the loss to Wales means. And it’s better for the nation to digest an unpalatable truth and move on than to remain in permanent denial.

This is the end of the golden generation. They shone their brightest in the twilight of their days, fighting on and on against time’s fell and inevitable hand. The golden generation were already over the hill when they won the Grand Slam two years ago. For them to still appear at the World Cup and to threaten so much is astonishing.

Even the term golden generation is misleading. It’s been O’Driscoll and the supporting cast. He had able subalterns in O’Connell and O’Gara but Ireland without O’Driscoll over the years of his reign were like low-fat milk or decaf coffee. More or less pointless. No emerald comet ever shone so brightly and for so long as O'Driscoll. He gave everything he had, and nobody can give more than that.

The depressing thing about the O’Driscoll era in Irish rugby is that the team didn’t win more. One Championship, a blessed Grand Slam, is not enough return. Celebrating Triple Crowns while Wales, England and France all won multiple Grand Slams was pathetic and betrayed a hopeless lack of ambition.

The wins over understrength and overconfident Australia and exhausted Italy in this World Cup were illusory. They simply papered over cracks. And when aging Ireland met young and hungry Wales there was no contest. Ireland were blown away by a much better team.

Seven countries have had podium finishes in the World Cups so far – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, France, Argentina and Wales. Even Scotland managed to win a quarter-final, once. Ireland never have, and struggle to get out of the group half the time.

This time Ireland topped the group, and still couldn’t progress. The Irish rugby community tends to stiffen with pride at the thought of the successes of Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup, and expects that to transfer internationally. Maybe having only two first-rate club sides in our domestic rugby is actually a sign of lean times ahead.

And leaner they’ll get, not least when it makes more financial sense for the provinces to bring in specialist tight head props, openside flankers and stand-off halves from overseas than to suffer the mistakes of up and coming Irish players who must learn their trade.

In theory those young Irish players can learn their trade in Connacht, the “development” province. As such, you’d think all Connacht players should be Irish and under-25, with some leeway for local men to build a support base. Here’s the Connacht rugby squad – how do you think that one’s working out?

Rugby has had ten years in Ireland like it has never enjoyed before. The question facing the IRFU now is do they push on and grow the sport in the country, or settle back to the comfort of the alickadoo community?

The horrified and short-sighted response to former Minister Eamon Ryan’s proposal that Heineken Cup rugby should be free to air suggests that the IRFU are unaware of the need to keep promoting the game. Travelling hordes supporting Munster was always very well when it was novel and money was flush, but that’s not going to happen for a few years. There are dark times ahead, and the IRFU ought to prepare properly for them.

One way to start would be by giving the smug self-satisfaction a rest and publicly bemoaning that the golden generation didn’t win as much as they should have, and if Ireland's greatest ever player wasn't let down by his home union.

What would be very revelatory and cathartic would be if the IRFU came out and said that Ireland could have had Warren Gatland as head coach for the entirety of Brian O’Driscoll’s career, and we shot ourselves in the foot big time there. An Spailpín Fánach shan’t be holding his breath.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Gallagherism - the Magic Door to the Presidency

There are strange stirrings in the Presidential election. Michael D remains favourite to win it – he’s the old dog for the hard road and he won’t be shooting himself in the foot anytime soon. But the rise of Seán Gallagher, as reported in this morning’s Irish Times, is astonishing.

It tells us a lot about the country, and is further evidence of the distance between the political and media elite and the ordinary people of Ireland, the ordinary people who have to find a way to survive the battering of recent and coming years.

There’s no good reason Gallagher should be challenging. Only Dana has less money. Labour, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael have more troops – sorry Martin – on the ground, and Mary Davis seems to have the most resources among the independents. And yet it’s Gallagher that’s coming out on top. Why?

He’s not postering. His website is, frankly, cook. His only exposure is in the shouting matches that masquerade as debates. How in holy Hell is Gallagher capturing the people’s imaginations?

Lack of baggage is Gallagher’s first moment of separation. People are deciding by process of elimination, and there are stronger reasons to object to Dana, Davis, Mitchell, McGuinness and Norris than they are to object to Gallagher or Michael D.

But it’s still remarkable that Gallagher is getting so much capital with so little exposure and less money. It’s can’t be just because of who he’s not. There has to be something else.

An Spailpín’s theory is that Gallagher is capturing the voters’ imagination because he says that he can create jobs as President.

It’s all very well to talk about visions and representing Ireland and the rest, but people living in the real world would sooner be able to pay the mortgage than listen to a lot of old blather about fairness, equality and respect. The Irish people have a lot of respect for the pound note. Surviving a famine leaves a pragmatic streak in the folk memory.

And this is what’s resonating for Gallagher. The country is falling to pieces. People want work. They want to pay their mortgages and have some sort of standard of life. If Gallagher says he’ll do that as first citizen, why not give him a shot? We can worry about pride at home, respect abroad later. This week we’re minding the job and paying the mortgage, thank you.

Of course, the President of Ireland can’t create jobs. Deputy Flanagan was correct in describing him or her as a person whose job is to cut ribbons. But you can’t say that in the middle of an election. You can’t say the President can’t do a damn thing, but we’re spending all this money on the election and office because we fancy a soft job up in the Park.

Gallagher can’t be attacked on the basis that he can’t do what he’s promising to do because that then means admitting the President doesn’t do a damn thing, really. That sort of admission will only make people who are still furious about what’s happened the country even more annoyed, and that level of fury is at Gas Mark 4 as it is.

Seán Gallagher has found the perfect storm and it could blow him right into the Phoenix Park. And once he’s there, what odds? He can’t create any jobs bar his own. He’ll be solid as a rock for seven years, step down, and lecture happily in America for the rest of his days.

Even though Gallagherism can’t deliver jobs, at least the people will have sent a message to the political elite that jobs are what count. Let’s hope there are ears to hear.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Crossing the Grain Line: To Beer or Not to Beer Before Ireland v Wales

Faster than light neutrinos booting along the spine of Italy are in the ha’penny place compared to the stress the immutable laws of nature will face in Ireland next weekend.

For the first time since William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, the great and manly pastimes of supporting the game of rugby and lorrying buckets of fermented barley, grain and hops are not only disunited; they are at daggers drawn.

Drinking has always been associated with rugby. Among players, the debauchery reached its apotheosis when Colin Smart, loose head prop for Tunbridge Wells and England, downed a bottle of aftershave at the France v England post-match dinner after their Five Nations game in 1982. Smart’s scrum-half, Steve Smith, later remarked that after Smart had his stomach pumped he didn’t look good but he did smell lovely.

It’s a professional era now, of course, and the modern player is fuelled solely by Lucozade Sport and boiled chicken. But for the supporters, the pints are lorried just as they always were. Rugby has always been a social sort of a game.

And that’s at the root of the weekend dilemma. The quarter-final between Ireland and Wales rises before the very dawn itself in the green land or Erin, and as such the question every supporter must ask is: pint like a savage and stay up all the night, or take one for the team and abjure Friday night gargle?

The young and restless will choose the heroes’ part, of course. Eager young men will mount the high stools like John Wayne mounting his horse while getting set to take on the Comanches – grim faced and determined in the awful realisation that men gotta do what men gotta do. By four the nightclubs and late bars will have inquired if they have no homes to go, and disgorged them onto the pavement where they do or do not.

Then they are at their greatest danger. Ladies will be making the glad eye and tempting our heroes with earthly delight. Some young men may be already insensible, and already sleeping the sleep of the just in gutters or bus shelters. And more will be laying siege to the chippers, hoping that a layer of greasy soakage between the pints already swallowed and the warm cans waiting back in the flat can make all the difference.

For greyer heads, the temptation is to wish the children well, and hope that they do not kick the wing mirrors off our cars on their way home. We choose to sit in and have an early night, in order to rise with lark, refreshed.

But reader, danger just as deadly as a night-club Natalie or a car-park coma awaits, even in the safety of the home. While trapped in one’s lair, nervously worrying about the ancient hwyl that has fueled Welsh rugby to deeds of glory through the generations, a fan may be tempted to turn on his or her television. It may be necessary to distract the mind from worrying about slow second phase ball, choke tackles or that awful dream we’ve been having where the Pink Panther recites from Yeats in the accent of Matt Williams.

Through no fault of his own, the innocent may, by a tragically unlucky chain of events and through no fault or his own, be exposed to the Late Late Show. This can only lead to one thing: a level of fury that reduces the television receiver to smithereens as you smash it to bits with the trusty poker.

But as you stand there among the broken glass and plastic, the righteous anger will subside and the grim realisation will drawn: oh bloody hell, how will I watch the game now? Reader, there will be only one choice. Go into the hall, put on your hat and coat, and go out, out into the night. Rugby and revelry have stood shoulder to shoulder, answering Ireland’s call, for too long for you to turn your back on either now.