Monday, May 27, 2013

What Lessons Can We Learn from Shattergate?

The best thing to come out of the recent brouhaha involving penalty points, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and those strange bedfellows, “ethics” and “probity,” is that we, the sovereign people, have been provided with a forensic walk-through of how the body politic works. The whole thing has been a case study in what’s important, what isn’t, why some things happen and why some things don’t in the state.

The worst thing about the recent brouhaha is that we, the sovereign people, are now sure beyond reasonable doubt that the institution of the state is a house of mirrors, and cries to high heaven for reform.

Firstly, we’ve been confirmed in a belief that the standard of civic debate in this country isn’t very high. A school of red herrings have swam past over the past twelve days, obscuring the central point of the “scandal,” which is this: is it a resigning matter if a Minister for Justice uses confidential material to which he or she only has access by virtue of his or her position as Minister for Justice to make an ad hominem attack on a political opponent?

That’s the central issue. Did Alan Shatter do wrong in using information about Mick Wallace to which Alan Shatter had privileged access due to his ministerial position?

Whether Alan Shatter bought a dud watch, wrote a dirty book, got pulled by the cops leaving the Dáil or is currently reforming the Department of Justice like a latter-day Martin Luther doesn’t matter. But despite this, the opposition has been all over the shop in their criticism of him. Not least Fianna Fáil’s Justice spokesman, Niall Collins, who has been like a child who got a present of a tin drum when it wasn’t even his birthday and keeps banging the thing constantly for days. Days.

One of the reasons that debate isn’t focused on whether or not Alan Shatter misused his office is that nobody in Ireland is all that terribly sure of what constitutes an actual political scandal. In Britain, the faintest hint of impropriety sees you shown the door although, in fairness to our former rulers, they usually go before they’re pushed.

Our fellas don’t go before they’re pushed. It was a brass neck that got them elected in the first place, and it’s not until the noose tightens around that same brass neck will they give up a damn thing.

Hence, Alan Shatter’s rather stunned reaction to the idea that he had a question to answer in the first place. “Is this a joke?” Shatter asked a reporter when the reported asked Shatter if he should consider his position. He’s a minister in a government with a well-whipped 58-seat majority. He doesn’t have to consider a damn thing, actually.

But, it did look bad so, with extreme bad grace, Alan Shatter made a speech to the Dáil that saw the thing get its second wind and journalists scurry to find out if this was an actual scandal after all, just like the grown-ups have.

It’s interesting, also, to note how much of the coverage focuses on Alan Shatter’s perceived arrogance. That Shatter, in his two years as Minister for Justice, has moved a raft of acts through the parliament and into law figures little in the coverage – the current writer is only aware of it having read it in a profile in the Phoenix, as an aside in a long feature detailing just what a pain in the neck the man is.

But this ability to get stuff done doesn’t count for anything. Shatter the man is inclined to look down on journalists – hard to imagine, but true – and don’t think the journalists care for it.

Either way, the matter is now over. Yesterday’s Sunday Times reported that there is no file to which a mischievous Mattie McGrath referred in the Dáil last week, which means either there actually isn’t a file or else the guards have been somehow got on message. It will be interesting to see if industrial relations between the Gardaí and the minister get better or worse in the next few months.

As for the substantial issue, Alan Shatter should have resigned. It was a gross misuse of power to use confidential information to score a cheap political point. Mick Wallace is a disappointment as a parliamentarian – one could posit that the only difference between Wallace and a clown in the circus is that the clown will at least wear a suit to work – but that’s not the point. If a Minister for Justice – any minister – can access and then use sensitive information then someday some Minister will use it against any of us. And that’s the definition of a police state.

But that’s not how politics rolls in Ireland. In Ireland, it takes more than a whiff or sulphur before it’s time for you to consider your position. You need to be caught with one hand in the cookie jar, the other holding a smoking gun, a hip pocket full of brown envelopes and a lifelong membership card for Opus Dei clenched in your teeth before it comes to that. And even then, with a fifty-seat majority, squeezing out a tear or two for Dobbo on the six o’clock news might do it. God knows, it’s worked before.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mayo Championship Preview 2013

One of those red digital display countdown clocks, like the ones you see in the movies, has been running in every Mayo head since about half-eight or nine o’clock on the third Sunday of September last year. The five stages of grief having been squeezed into three hours by virtue of long and bitter practice, thoughts then turned to Championship 2013, and Revenge. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Those clocks are down to single digits now, as Mayo’s early outing at the seaside against Galway approaches. Since the draw was made in October last year, Sunday has been a green-and-red letter day. Win in Salthill, and the Mayo bandwagon is back on the road. Lose, and James Horan needs to be smuggled out of the county until things calm down a bit.

Problem is, those countdown clocks are calibrated incorrectly. A countdown to Salthill made sense before Christmas but as the League rolled on, things changed. A measure of a team’s success is its ability to adapt; if Horan can adapt to changed surroundings in time to have Mayo punch their weight come August, it’s been another great year already. If not; well, it’s not like we haven’t cried into our beer before.

What’s changed since Christmas? Injuries are what have changed since Christmas.

James Horan spent the first year of his time as Mayo senior manager trying out players and combinations. By Year 2 he had found the men with whom he was prepared to fight or die, and that year was about bedding them in. And Year 3 would be about forging those men into burnished steel in the white heat of the greatest glory of the Irish summer, the Championship.

But that plan is pretty much dependent on the players being there in the first place. If they’re not, Horan has to wing it until they are.

Mayo football never wanted for rumours, but we are certain that Michael Conroy is gone until August at least. A big loss. If Alan Dillon and Andy Moran are back, they can’t be match fit, and no-one will really know how much Andy Moran’s lion heart will be able to rule his wounded body until he plays.

That’s three hostages to fortune on Sunday out of the six forwards the rules allow. Barry Moran’s continued absence sees further question marks over midfield, so Horan is going to the game in Salthill with three lines disrupted. Those who dream of the return of Richie Feeney or Tom Cunniffe could make the case for four.

And that’s a hell of a lot of uncertainty for a team to be away-from-home favourites against a traditional rival who always have it in them to turn Mayo over, and to sometimes go so far as to give Mayo a comprehensive hiding. The price of Mayo as 8/15 favourites at Salthill on Sunday is mean in the extreme.

In an ideal world, of course, Mayo turn up in Salthill, burn Galway down and cast their ashes to the wind that howls around that cold ground. Galway are a team that cannot be beaten too often or too badly by the County Mayo. We do it, not out of spite, but of love for our western neighbours that, like the triumphal Romans of old, they will always know that they are mortals, not gods.

Unfortunately, that’s not always possible and on occasion it’s been Galway that have done the beating. There is a strange quiet in the land of the heron chokers this week, a remarkable trait among a lippy tribe. What are they up to? Are they thinking of May 25, 1998, a day that will live in infamy in the county Mayo?

Perhaps they are. It’d be like them, God knows. But this is 2013 and, should the unthinkable happen, Mayo must remember that there is a back door this year, and they should be neither ashamed nor unmotivated to use it.

Mayo’s qualifier record is shocking, but it doesn’t have to be. If Mayo take the pipe in Salthill it’s six weeks until their next competitive game. That’s a lot of time to repair those who need repairing and to remind the younger members of the panel that if you want a place on the team you have to go out and grab it. It won’t come to you by right.

It would be lovely if Horan threw caution to the wind and told someone like Evan Regan that his hour is come, and if Regan were then to go out and do as Cillian O’Connor did before him. Chances are that Horan will pick Enda Varley or Alan Freeman instead. Both are fine men, but neither particularly daring as a selection. Who knows? The most important thing to remember is that the countdown clock doesn’t reach 00:00:00 on Sunday the third Sunday in May but on the fourth Sunday in September. All Mayo have to do until then is survive.

Survival on the high road of the Championship would be ideal, as Mayo have done in the past two years of the Horan era. But if the journey is to be through the mountainy land of the Qualifiers, so be it. So long as a full-strength Mayo are in Croke Park in August how they get there doesn’t matter. Because, gentle reader, take this as gospel: there isn’t one county in the country who’ll look forward to playing them then. Up Mayo.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Football Championship Preview 2013

As the counties stand like greyhounds in the slips on the eve of another All-Ireland Championship, the 2011 Champions find themselves in an unusual position. It’s not that their being favourites to lift Sam is all that unusual, of course, but it is odd that this time there is no inflation in Dublin’s price. And what is positively eerie isn’t the absence of inflation but that it would be impossible for anyone but the most ardent of anti-metropolitans to begrudge them.

We have seen hyped Dublin teams in the past but for whatever reason – and it’s almost certain a combination of reasons, some planned, some happy happenstance – the current Dublin team are on the verge of forging a dynasty. They have quality in every line, radiating from captain Cluxton in goal all the way up to the full-forward line where Dublin have as many options as a Kardashian has shoes.

Opponents of Dublin’s chances talk of peaking too soon or being spoilt for choice or complacency or hype but it’s all clutching at straws. It’s hard to see anyone keeping the ball kicked out to Dublin in Leinster and after that it’s the luck of the draw whether they have sacrificial lamb for dinner on the August Bank Holiday weekend or they meet someone who can give them a game of it.

Who that someone might be is hard to pin down. The odds for the Championship make the past four All-Ireland Champions the favourites for this year, but it’s 10/1 on Mayo or Tyrone after that and then it’s an astonishing 20/1 the field.

If those prices are reflective of the counties’ relative standings, this could be one of the most unequal Championships in over a generation. What’s more, there are big question marks hanging over the other three top contenders, starting with the Champions.

Clare’s genius, Jamesie O’Connor is quoted in Denis Walsh’s excellent Hurling: The Revolution Years as saying that things fell apart from Clare because what it takes for a particular team to win its first All-Ireland is not at all like what it takes to win their second. Donegal are discovering that now. Like Loughnane’s Clare, Donegal were not so much men as a force of nature last year – will they be able to harness that again? The Bitegate business is a distraction that they didn’t need, and the other thing they didn’t need was to start their Championship against Tyrone. There are no easy games in Ulster, but some games are harder than others. If Donegal win, the adventure begins again, but it’s unlikely the Qualifiers would suit them.

There are many easy games in Munster, of course, and the same two teams will be present in the last eight, irrespective of which of them wins the Munster Championship. After that though, it gets a bit murky.

Neither county will ever suffer from a talent shortfall, but both Cork and Kerry have old panels, nearing the end of their days. Cork must be aware that their talent level of the past five or seven years deserved more than the one title they won, while Kerry are Kerry. The Kingdom are never satisfied, never to be written off, and always in the mix. Kerry are disregarded at your absolute peril and, if there is such a thing as a “soft” All-Ireland, it’s generally Kerry that wins it. It’s what they do.

Tyrone, Kerry’s bêtes noirs of the 21st Century, are looking good in Ulster. Seán Boylan is the only manager of the modern era to have won All-Irelands with two different teams. It would be fitting, and a feat begrudged by nobody, were that good man Mickey Harte to equal Boylan’s achievement. That said, anybody with a scintilla of romance or a feel for the history of the game will have noted Cavan’s stirrings at the Under-21 level and dreams of the day when Breifne rises again. Cavan take their bow this weekend against Armagh; best of luck to them.

In the lonesome west, Roscommon are ideally positioned. All westerners dream of relaxing in the long grass, the better to mount an ambush as the hay ripens into June and July. That’s where Roscommon are now, silently waiting on the winners of this weekend’s game in Salthill.

The penny is dropping for the nation that it’s been a long time since Galway were good. A man who studies football closely remarked to your correspondent a few weeks ago that Mayo would stroll Connacht, on the basis that Galway haven’t brought their Under-21s through. “But bejabbers,” says I, “what if this is the year?”

The danger is always lurking. If Galway do beat Mayo it means that Galway are back, and there is suddenly another contender to keep the ball kicked out to Dublin. Whether that will be enough to stop what looks like a skyblue and navy procession through the summer of 2013 is something we’ll have to wait and see.

As for Mayo – we’ll take a closer look at their chances later this week.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Dying Isn't a Right. It's an Obligation

The Marie Fleming case has got blanket coverage in the media in recent months, but last week saw a particular peak after the Supreme Court turned down her application. Saturday’s Irish Times carried two separate stories, one an interview with Marie Fleming’s daughter and the other with her partner, decrying the Supreme Court judgment. “The State spared no resource in denying Marie a dignified death,” is the headline on the interview with Tom Curran, Marie Fleming’s partner.

That is one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is to say the State spared no resource in protecting the rights of its citizens, which is exactly what the State should be doing.

All this is very tough on Marie Fleming, of course. She’s miserable and in pain and will be until she dies. Nobody disputes that, and if death came to her tomorrow, while her friends would grieve and mourn, no-one would wish it hadn’t come later. But whenever death does come, Marie Fleming will die. That is certain. It’s impossible to deny someone the right to die, because dying isn’t a right. It’s an obligation. There’s a difference.

A right is something you can choose not to exercise. For Marie Fleming to be denied the right to die is impossible. We all going to die. Even if the State wanted to deny Marie Fleming that “right”, it couldn’t. The single fundamental, undeniable truth about life is that it ends.

What the Marie Fleming case is about is whether or not someone has the right to decide how, when and where they’re going to die, and that’s a completely different thing. It doesn’t fit a headline as neatly as “right to die,” of course, and neither does it give the commentariat a chance to show the endless depths of its compassion. But as the question of whether or not a person has the right to choose the circumstances of their own death is the issue, let’s look at it for a while.

There are two points at issue here. The first is whether or not someone should decide when his or her own life ends, rather than let nature take its inevitable course. If you accept that notion – and it’s a big if – the next question is then to decide on what basis that decision is made.

If you are of the opinion that a person should be able to decide how, when and why his or her life should end, that means you are in favour of suicide as a practice. The ancient Romans and Greeks had no issue with it, the Japanese – it’s far from unprecedented.

But you’re opening a profound can of worms when you go down that route. You are saying that there are some pains in the world that are worse than the pain of death, than the pain of not being alive any more. You are reducing the taboo on suicide by making it acceptable in some cases, which will then become more and more cases as the taboo and stigma wears off. And this isn’t a good thing.

That there is nothing so bad in this world that you should leave it by doing violence unto yourself is, or should be, a fundamental truth. That is hard luck on those in similar predicaments to Marie Fleming, but the greater good is very much more important.

Besides. If society does accept that notion that there are things in the world that cannot be borne and that self-destruction is a better alternative to that pain, it is then faced with the thorny problem of how to decide what those things that cannot be borne are.

And this is even more dangerous that an acceptance of suicide because what it does is quantify the right to life. The right to life is currently an absolute – the life of the Taoiseach or President is as important as the life of the homeless person who slept rough in the doorways of Georgian Dublin last night and will again tonight. The quality of their lives are completely different of course, but they have an equal right to life under the law.

Legislation that would change that right means that just being human and alive will no longer be enough. Your life will have to have a certain quality, judged against a certain series of parameters. If your life dips below this quality, it will be the inevitable judgment of society that it’s time you were shuffling off and not be lingering, depressing your healthy and well fellow citizens.

Advocates of euthanasia would be (rightly) horrified at this, and argue that the choosing of when, where and how to die is entirely a private matter. But that’s not true. If that were true, there would be no such thing as society.

But there is such a thing a society, and there are rules about how a person can or can’t act in society, rules that exist for the protection of the society in general to the sometime inconvenience of the individual. Besides; it’s no longer a private matter if you are no longer capable of suicide and need assistance, which is where we came in with the Marie Fleming case in the first place.

It’s a very complex issue. Philosophical progress on the nature of what it is to be human has not kept pace with scientific progress. We have advanced scientifically while regressing philosophically – ours is an age that treasures youth, even though we now live longer than ever, and the longer we live the further away youth, our culture’s utmost treasure, gets from us.

We now have people living longer and longer in an age for which only being young matters. There is no great sign of joined-up thinking there, but a bridge will have to built, and by smarter people than your correspondent.

It won’t happen in time for Marie Fleming, and that’s tough. But it would be tougher on everyone if the right to life were put on a sliding scale because of misplaced compassion in a debate that is much more complex than is being portrayed in the media.

FOCAL SCOIR: I’ve been talking about suicide and I am all too fully aware of what a problem it is in Ireland at the moment. I would sooner sound precious than be irresponsible so here goes: If you’re not feeling great, the Samaritans’ number is 1850 60 60 90, and the website is Call them, even if it’s only to talk about football. Sometimes, five minutes can be all it takes for clouds to break and things to look better. Nobody will think you’ll stupid – wouldn’t they much prefer to chat with someone thoughtful like yourself than do regular office stuff, or listen to a lot of yak from the HR department? You’ll be doing them a favour when you call, if anything. Let the black dog go chase parked cars. Make the call.