Friday, October 25, 2013

What Have the Germans Ever Done for Us?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

She's in the Mayo colours -
how can she be that bad?
The Government are making a big deal of the budget being the “last austerity budget.” After this, they say, the bailout will be over. Ireland’s economic sovereignty will be restored.

Which leads me to a slightly traitorous question this morning. To wit: is that return of economic sovereignty entirely a good thing?

When the IMF responded to the bat signal from Ireland in 2010 the then-opposition made a big deal about the loss of Ireland’s economic sovereignty. The current Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources nearly self-combusted in fury on Prime Time during one debate at the thought of the loss of our economic sovereignty, in one of his many memorably television performances.

But what exactly is this thing, economic sovereignty? The London School of Economics, who ought to know, tells us that it’s the power of a government to make decisions independent of other governments.

And that’s great in theory. But in practice, “ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” as the seanfhocal has it – “people live in the shadow of each other.” And that’s as true for countries as it is for people. The only country I can think of that exists independently of every other country is North Korea and North Korea gives every impression of being hell on Earth.

One hundred years ago, it was possible for a country to exist on its own. Even seventy years ago, when Eamon DeValera made his famous St Patrick’s Day address to the nation, saying the Irish were a poor people, contented with things of the mind, isolationism was still, kind of, an option.

But not any more. The twenty-first century counts its minutes in a globalised world, where we’re all living in each other’s pockets. For the past number of years, the particular pocket the Irish have been in has been Frau Merkel’s, to the general distress of the populace. Everything would be fine, we’ve been telling ourselves, if it weren’t for the Germans. But now the Government is promising a restored economic sovereignty, and escape from the German pocket, everything is going to be grand.

But is it? And is being under the Germans’ wing all that bad?

By the Germans, we mean the EU, really. The Germans call all the shots in the EU. Everyone knows it, and that’s almost certainly the real reason the British dislike the EU so much.

Although not as bad as the British, the Irish have a strange relationship with the EU. The EU built modern Ireland in many ways, and yet we despise it as an institution. The EU won’t let us do this, and they won’t let us do that. There’s every sort of regulation, tying us up and denying us liberty.

Do you know what else the EU doesn’t let us do? Starve.

Ireland joined the Common Market / EEC in 1973, forty years ago. We’ll commemorate (after a fashion) the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in three years time, but there’s a case to be made that the EU has had a greater influence on the nation because it brought Ireland into the modern age. Money has flowed into Ireland for the past forty years from Brussels and in return we religiously shoot down every referendum, until the EU learns to ask us nicely.

A lot of this is the fault of the political culture of course, and another reason why the political culture is crying out for reform. For forty years the nation has been conditioned to just about tolerate the EU, like some doddery old relation whom we’ve been instructed to keep sweet in the hope of inheriting the land.

The Maastricht treaty was the treaty that set the ball rolling on the current drive for greater European Union, and was instrumental in the creation of the Euro. How was it presented at home? An eight billion pound jackpot for Ireland. Nothing else. Show me the money, and to hell with the big picture.

So the political culture is now reaping what it sowed in EU terms. Forty years of suspicion and distrust have their legacy. People talk about the EU not being democratic, as if that were a bad thing from our perspective. There are four million Irish and eighty million Germans. If the EU were truly democratic, do you think there would be Croke Park Agreements and Haddington Road Agreements and all the rest of them? There would be Reichstag Directives, and that would be that.

Ireland punches miles above its weight in the EU, yet we don’t realise it. We don’t realise just how well we’re doing. For eight hundred years Ireland was part of another multi-national organisation, on which the sun never set, and all we got for it were penal laws, a border and a long legacy of sectarianism.

During the Famine, the Irish were let starve, on the basis that the land was of greater economic use while grazing sheep than housing peasants. During the economic meltdown, the Germans sighed, sat down and wrote the Irish a cheque. That’s the difference.

And still people don’t realise it. Burn the bondholders!, they cry. Turn over the moneylenders’ tables in the Temple! And when asked who would then fill in the gigantic hole in the national coffers, we’re told we’ll be fine – someone always turns up.

Well, no. Someone doesn’t always turn up. Argentina defaulted on its debts ten years ago. When the Argentinean President, Christina Fernandez, went to visit the new pope, she had to fly the long way round, to avoid her airplane being impounded by one of Argentina’s many creditors. The fact Pope Francis is so concerned about the poor is because he has seen so many of them, and he has seen so many of them because Argentina’s governments have not been good.

We have been luckier. Ireland got into the EU in the nick of time and finally caught up with the modern world. When the modern world went to our heads, the EU came in to save us again. Get rid of the Germans? May they never go away.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Enda, Lucinda, and the Future of the Country

First published in the Western People on Monday.

It’s not often that the two most important politicians in the country are from County Mayo. Not only is that the case currently, but both Lucinda Creighton and Enda Kenny have it in their power to change the politics of the country forever, if they should so choose.

Enda Kenny is already a winner in this regard. The underestimated man has proven himself a leader of courage in a time of crisis in the country, and this can never be taken away from him. He has certainly blundered here and there along the way but the man who makes no mistakes is the man who does nothing at all. If Kenny were to resign in the morning history would view his Premiership favourably.

Enda Kenny is the man who brought stability back to the economy and, in a time of deep national unease, the man’s fundamental optimism and good humour were badly needed. He is getting a hard time currently over the Seanad referendum, which certainly was a blunder, but the Seanad will not be an issue on the doorsteps come either next year’s local and European elections or the general election that will decide who governs on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. You can safely bet the children’s allowance on that.

Lucinda Creighton may dispute that assessment of Kenny. It’s become quite clear over the years that the one party couldn’t hold two such contrasting personalities. Creighton left – or was pushed – from Fine Gael over her stance on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, but it could be that a row was always going to flare up and this Bill just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Life throws these things at us.

But now that she’s on the outside against her will, what does Creighton see as her options? The cleverest thing to do would have been to take her beating, and then be re-admitted to the party in time for the next general election. The Kenny faction may not like her, but there are plenty in Fine Gael who do. Equally, there is a population who, whatever their views on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill itself, admire Creighton’s courage in standing against the tide, and the woman’s considerable intellect. If she did her porridge, as it were, Fine Gael would have found a way back for her.

Instead, Creighton has been making waves. Where she could have sat out the battle and knitted on the backbenches, she has instead formed the Reform Alliance from among the other TDs who were ejected with her, and Denis Naughten, who lost the Fine Gael whip earlier over Roscommon Hospital. And what the Reform Alliance will do next is the pivot on which the history of this country will turn.

It all depends on whether or not Enda Kenny is still leader of Fine Gael come the next general election. He was seen as a sure thing, but his enemies – who never went away – will have been given fresh heart by the Seanad fiasco. Richard Bruton is certainly finished as an alternative leader, but there are plenty others willing to step up. Under a new regime, would Creighton and the Reform Alliance be welcomed back to Fine Gael’s bosom? Of course they would, if for no other reason to have them where the new leader can see them.

But what will the Reform Alliance do while Kenny is still the boss? The very formation of the Reform Alliance was a surprise. The Reform Alliance’s intervention in the Seanad Referendum, though almost certainly of no impact to the result, was a positive shock. The Reform Alliance was testing its muscle, to see how much they could press off the bench. And that then begs the question of how much muscle will they have built up when or if a return to Fine Gael becomes a prospect?

This is the big question in Irish politics now. The country is no longer in crisis, but it is a long way from being back on its feet. The turnout of the Seanad referendum and the repeated opinion polls that show such strong support for independents mean that there is a considerable amount of the population that no longer feels it has a voice in national politics. The space for a new party is clearly there.

There are three things that generally stand against the prospect of a new party. The first is opportunity, as Irish politics is conservative and loathe to change. The upheaval caused by the crash changes this for as long as the trauma lasts.

The second problem is finance, but a right-wing party will always attract more money than a left-wing one – who would finance a party that, once it gets into power, will only take even more money off you in taxes? It makes no sense.

The final point, then, is leadership. For a new party to exist, it needs a strong and charismatic leadership. Creighton has that gift. She could have wormed her way out of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, as others in Fine Gael did, but she stood her ground and suffered considerable consequences to her career. In a political system often accused of careerism and nothing else, she displayed integrity and courage. A lot of people still don’t agree with Creighton’s stance, but a considerable number of those cannot help but admire the woman’s courage.

If things fell their way, the Reform Alliance could win enough seats in the general election to be kingmaker in the next Dáil. By holding the balance of power, the Reform Alliance could make real and substantial reform the price of that king-making. In so doing, they could end civil war politics in Ireland, and do so at the symbolically important point in time of the 100th anniversary of the Rising. Ireland would stop being a teenager and accept adult responsibilities.

That’s the choice facing Lucinda Creighton from Claremorris in the coming months and years. Wait for an opportunity to return to Fine Gael, or take her chance at changing Irish politics forever. May God guide her in whatever decision she chooses to make.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What We Can Learn from the Clare Hurlers

First published in the Western People on Monday.

And then, after the heartache of the All-Ireland Football Final, the sweet and soothing balm of the hurling. It’s normally the football that brings the curtain down on summer and announces the dread return of winter. For the past two years the hurling replays have allowed us that extra half-hour of playtime before it’s time for bath and bed. Having been left empty-handed at the end of the Big Show, a lot of people in the County Mayo were grateful for one last game that could be enjoyed, rather than endured.

Cormac MacConnell, that great Fermanagh writer from a great Fermanagh family, once wrote that he knew just enough about hurling to know that he knew exactly nothing about hurling. And so it goes for most Mayo people, if not the majority of the country. Hurling is a mysterious priesthood, a game for initiates for whom it is the one true belief, while those outside the cast can only peer through the window at the great and ancient game.

The nation’s attitude to hurling, lik the nation’s attitude to a lot of things, is a strange one. If all the people who like to remark that hurling is the greatest game in the world actually played it or promoted it, a camán would be as commonplace to every child in the country as his or her Xbox. But talk is cheap and hurling remains where it has always remained, among its strongholds.

And in the light of that domination, what a thing it was last Sunday week to see Clare rise roaring once more from the bottom of the table, to overturn doubters, dissenters and all to bring the Liam McCarthy Cup home to the Banner for only the fourth time ever. Clare, that most marvellous of counties. God help you there in County Clare, stuck between Kerry and Kiltimagh, as the old people used to say.

While Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary hurl on the beautiful, rich land of the golden vale, the land in Clare is a lot like the land in the County Mayo – no less beautiful, but not at all as rich or fertile. And not only that, a feature of the Clare landscape is also the world famous Burren, about which a Cromwellian planter once remarked to his bitter disappointment that “there isn't tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man.”

But maybe there’s more to life than hanging, drowning and burying men. Music and hurling are far more worthwhile pursuits, as a typically impassioned Anthony Daly told an enthralled nation twenty years ago, when Clare last burst on the scene to carry the big pot away.

What a team those men were. What men that team was. The manager Ger Loughnane, who had drank enough bitter gall during his own playing days in the 1970s to know that any pain was worth not knowing defeat again. The imperious Lohans guarding Davy Fitzgerald’s goal. Daly and Seánie McMahon at half-back. If you imagine our own O’Sheas armed with sticks you get an idea of the Clare midfield of Ollie Baker and Colin Lynch. And upfront, the veteran Sparrow O’Loughlin and the firefly skills of Jamesie O’Connor on the wing.

There was no-one whom Clare feared in those days and, on the days when they were defeated, they died with their boots on.

Now, nearly twenty years later, under the management of Ger Loughnane’s own goalkeeper, Clare have done it again. Davy Fitzgerald isn’t the media’s idea of a polished performer. Not only is his heart on his sleeve, but his very guts are there, heaving for all to see. But behind that raw passion is a brain that is the hurling equivalent of the Rolls Royce motor car. There was a lot of debate about Clare’s tactics this year but, after all the talk, there is one thing that is sure. Clare won.

Clare of 2013 are an echo of Loughnane’s great teams of the 1990s, in that they are built from the back up. David McInerney, Brendan Bugler and Tony Kelly are worthy successors to Brian Lohan, Seánie Mac and Jamesie. The big difference between the teams of the nineties and the team of 2013 is the performance of young Shane O’Donnell in the final.

Only told he was starting an hour before the game began, O’Donnell scored three goals and three points to lead Clare past a valiant Cork, a Cork who would have reeled any other team in Ireland back. But not Clare, who were very much destiny’s children in 2013.

In a post-game interview with Shane O’Donnell broadcast on last Monday’s Morning Ireland, Clare’s latter-day Cúchulainn put it all in a nutshell. “Sure this is my first year on both panels, 21s and senior,” said O’Donnell. “I don't even have the all the baggage that the lads have from years gone by where they should have won things but they didn't. And it's a lot easier going out and playing when you don't have things in the back of your head like that.

It’s a lot easier going out and playing when you don’t have things in the back of your head like that. In Mayo, we have more things in the back of our heads than that young man could dream of. He thinks the baggage of twenty years a lot. He should try sixty.

But this isn’t to have a pop at O’Donnell. The man is the toast of the nation in these hard times and if he’s not, he should be. This is just to say that, reader, someday that will be us.

Someday that will be a Mayoman talking about how the only thing that matters is the here and now. That days come one by one and you either seize them or let them go forever. That piseogs and curses aren’t worth a bale of wet straw compared to the courage, talent and the eternal optimism of youth. God speed the day and, while we await it, up the Banner and may they enjoy a warm and short winter.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Seanad Dodges Bullet, State Remains Critical

Abolishing the Seanad should have been as easy as knocking the head off a thistle. The thing does nothing. Even the anti-abolition side in the referendum campaign acknowledged that much (apart from a single, bizarre instance of groupthink, more of which anon). And even though all the No advocates trumpeted reform, reform, reform at every turn, reform was never an option. The sovereign people were asked to vote on whether the Seanad was to stay or to go. Nothing else.

So were the people hoodwinked by this talk of reform, whose chances are about the same as Ireland qualifying for the World Cup – possible, certainly, but by no means probable? Or did something else happen?

Your faithful correspondent has two theories about this. The first is that the Seanad was saved because the Yes side made such a tremendous hames of their campaign. Referenda are adversarial contests, like trials in courts of law. If you want to make a case, you don’t spare the blade – you go straight for the jugular.

It was suggested at the start of the summer that if the Government did want to shoot down the Seanad, it had to make the case that the Seanad was a rabid dog that must be shot for the safety of the community. Scaremongering? Of course, but certainly how referenda have been fought here in the past – hello divorce, goodbye Daddy, vote no to Lisbon/Nice to avoid being conscripted into the pan-European army, vote yes to Lisbon/Nice or else have the Albanians holding telethons to feed the starving Irish, and all the rest of it. Dirty of course, but politics is a dirty game.

What did we get instead? The world’s most watery excuse, that the abolition of the Seanad would save €20 million per year. In ten days’ time, the nation will be looking at steering a €3.5 billion budget “adjustment” through the houses of the Oireachtas. €20 million is 0.0057% of €3.5 billion, five thousandths of one per cent. Doesn’t seem like a lot in the bigger picture.

Did the Government then hammer the Seanad as useless, a drain on scarce resources, a dead weight in the body politic? No, it did not. A meme developed during the campaign that great additions had been made to Irish public life by Senators like Gordon Wilson, Mary Robinson, David Norris and WB Yeats. And this was accepted across the board, instead of being attacked in every instance.

Gordon Wilson’s great moment of forgiveness occurred in a TV interview, not the Seanad chamber. Mary Robinson jacked in her job as First Citizen of the sovereign Irish nation to trade up to the UN, treating the highest office in the land as nothing more than a stepping stone, a back to climb upon on her way to higher ground. (Robbo was also the victim of a truly vicious yet strangely endearing autobiography review by her one-time compatriot Mary Kenny in the Spectator magazine last year). And Norris could have been dismissed by simply playing VT of his extraordinary and disgraceful attack on Regina Doherty at the start of the campaign over and over again.

None of this is very nice and almost none of it is even fair but again, we’re playing politics here. This is how the game is played.

WB Yeats is the most interesting of the four Senatorial icons, but again the Yes side failed to point out that there is virtually no similarity between the Free State Senate of which Yeats was a member and the modern Seanad, of which both Richard Bruton and Labour’s chief (if not only) Yes advocate, Alex White, were members.

And this is perhaps what was the final nail in the Yes coffin. It was impossible, in the end, to figure out just where the Seanad ended and the rest of the body politic began. What made the Seanad so much worse than the county councils below it or the Dáil above it?

The Seanad has sixty seats. Three are for Trinity Senators who talk among and are admired by themselves, and are utterly irrelevant to anyone else. Three are for NUI Senators, who have been a mixed bag between teachers’ union hacks, wannabe Trinity Senators and Rónán Mullen.

There are eleven Taoiseach nominees, most of whom are party hacks or those to whom the Government party owes a favour. And then there are the forty-three others, county-councillors elected by other county-councillors in a tightly closed and confined bubble where a single preference in the twelfth county can be the difference between success and failure.

Political paths go from the council to the Dáil. Some councillors stop off on the Seanad, either on their way up or as a safety net from not having made the leap to the Dáil. It is one-half nursery and one-half nursing home. Nothing else. All this talk about scrutiny and safety valves is blather.

And it’s blather because the majority of Ireland’s laws are now made in either Brussels or Berlin. Gavin Reilly, the excellent political correspondent at Today FM, reckons "over 500 EU-related statutory instruments signed by ministers without parliamentary input," which then begs the question of what exactly it is the Dáil does.

And this is the second reason the Seanad hasn’t been abolished. The people didn’t see the point of abolishing the Seanad because they felt it would change nothing.

The people, based on the result of this referendum, the turnout of recent referenda, and the extraordinary prevalence of independents as viable Dáil candidates suggests that the people have almost given up on the very notion of governing their affairs, and are reasonably content to let faceless mandarins in the EU run the shop.

The Irish nation don’t cherish independence anymore. The founding moment of the state, the 1916 Rising, is being airbrushed into the background by this totally spurious "decade of commemoration," and nobody seems to mind. The Irish nation not only no longer knows who it is, but it no longer cares. We are on the verge of giving up, and letting the country be ruled from outside once more.

This is the real lesson about the state of democracy in Ireland in the aftermath of the failed attempt to abolish the Seanad.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Paradise in the Picture Houses

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Bond: Not such an eejit after all
The first film I remember seeing in the cinema was called The Wilderness Family. I loved it. It was the 1970s and the idea of nature and wilderness was iconic at the time, what with the oil crisis and all that.

John Denver was singing about Rocky Mountain Highs on the radio and the big hit show on TV was a thing called The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. James Adams was unjustly accused of murder by John Q Law and went off to live deep inside the forest with no-one for company except a great big bear called Ben and a man called (appropriately enough) Mad Jack who used to name his donkeys numerically. He had got as far as Number Seven by the time of the show.

There were no bears in the county Mayo at the that time – although I grant that there may have been a few Mad Jacks – and it all seemed so exotic, even on an old black-and-white Pye television set. As such, the chance to see that same wilderness on the big screen of the Savoy Cinema on Tone Street, just down from the current location of the Western People offices, was impossible to resist.

While Grizzly Adams had his troubles during the cowboy era of US history, the Wilderness Family was contemporary to 1970s concerns. But it was close enough, and 100 years is small change in the lives of mountains. If I sat down to watch the Wilderness Family now, it might not seem so magical, but it’d be a mistake to try. Wonder is always at its height during childhood, as it should be.

The Savoy is long gone, leaving not a wrack behind, but in the 1970s it was not the only cinema in Ballina. There was also the Astoria, an old-style cinema and even more wondrous than the Savoy.

Two reasons for this – firstly, there were huge iron gates on the front of the premises, trellised gates that opened and closed like an accordion instead of swinging on hinges. Those gates made a certain impression on duffle-coated eight-year-olds whose imaginations would immediately conclude that those gates were all that stood between the county Mayo and all sorts of Scooby-Doo villains. Many times I piously reflected that it was the grace of God that they were locked away inside there and not roaming the countryside and causing RTÉ to extend Garda Patrol in the light of the special emergency.

Secondly, the Astoria had a balcony. Watching Christopher Reeve’s Superman from the balcony made it feel that you were up there in the air with him, flying around Metropolis (although why he wasted his time with that girl, Lois Lane, was an utter mystery).

The Astoria is long gone now. The Savoy stuck it out for a longer time, with two new movies every week. There were only two channels on that Pye TV set and the Savoy represented a doorway to a different, wholly exotic life that seemed a million miles away from the mean streets of an Irish market town. Every day coming home from Scoil Padraig I’d stop to stare at the posters before dropping into Keohane’s to stop and stare at the no-less-exotic comics.

It’s funny what sticks in your mind. I can vividly remember staring at the poster for Smokey and Bandit, a 1970s comedy starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleeson. Everything Reynolds touched turned to cinema gold then.

I remember the poster for the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, where Bond is framed by the extremely long and toned legs of a lady. I wasn’t as bothered with Scooby-Doo at that stage, and thought that Bond, English though he may be, might not be such a fool after all.

The cinema comes into its own for teenagers, as it fulfils two vital teenage social necessities. The first is the intense need to get out the house and meet your friends when you have very little money to spend. And the second is that burning need to spend quality time with that special someone that is counterbalanced by the horrible dread that, the more time he or she spends with you, the more likely he or she is to realise what a drip you are and not at all worthy to lace his or her sandals.

Not only do you not have to talk during a movie, it is positively rude to do so. You only have to sit there. The only slight problem is what movie to go and see in the first place.

For the middle-aged people reading this who grew up in the 1980s, there were only two movies. If you were a boy, it was Top Gun, and if you were a girl, it was Dirty Dancing.

Top Gun is a movie about US air force pilots, and which of them is the best at flying a fighter plane. I have no idea to this day what Dirty Dancing is about but I’ve been told that its principle message is that one should never put a baby in a corner. Sensible advice, but hard to see how it took them two hours to get it across.

The new cinema opened and closed on Convent Hill during my own time away from Ballina. I heard it was an excellent place, but not enough people went to see films there for it to survive. And then I read in last week’s paper that the cinema is to return, and gave a little whoop for joy.

Even in this age of Netflix and torrents and You Tube and blue-ray DVDs there’s still something magical about the dark of the cinema, and the light above your heard shining onto the screen and maybe, on the really good days, someone nice next to you. You’re not talking, but at least you’re there, the two of you, together. Sometimes that can feel like paradise too.