Friday, April 25, 2014

What Exactly Are We Commemorating Here?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

It’s time to talk about 1916. It’s a pity that we have to talk about it at all, as the anniversary should be, in theory, like a second St Patrick’s Day at its very worst. But recent events and remarks in the press about inviting British Royals to attend whatever ceremonies will happen now beg the question what exactly is it that we’re commemorating, and what do we hope to achieve in that commemoration?

The momentum behind the idea of the British Royal Family being involved suggests that this hasn’t been thought through at all, and if we only learned one thing in recent years, we should have figured out that not thinking things through can only lead to trouble.

Fifty years ago, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, things were much clearer. The then President and Taoiseach were both active participants in 1916, and were going to push the boat out come what may.

Fifty years later, we are in a very different Ireland indeed. Thirty years of war in the North has made a lot of people ambivalent about nationalism. The continuing recession has made people bitter, and the continuing exposure of scandal-ridden state institutions as being deeply, deeply flawed eats away at national pride. The current government was elected to change all that in what felt like a culturally seismic election, and nothing has changed at all.

And through all this, Ireland’s warped relationship with the English now bubbles up again to distract further from the major work of repairing the country, ninety-four years after we were returned charge of it. England is Ireland’s frenemy, to use that useful phrase popularized by our sisters in the TV show Sex and the City.

We need them and we hate needing them. We insist that we are different because we are scared at how alike we are. We live and die with their soccer teams while lustily booing their soccer teams’ stars during the World Cup.

And of course for the English, the Irish are just a detail, like a bothersome bumble-bee at a picnic. The English are traumatised by the loss of their Empire, their national identity and, if things go Alex Sammond’s way in October, a good big slice of their United Kingdom itself. They really can’t make time for the Irish not knowing how to feel about Steven Gerrard.

Ireland isn’t the only country to have won a kind of freedom from the English. The United States of America did so as long ago as 1776. British Prime Ministers and Monarchs have visited the United States in official capacities many times since, but I don’t remember any of those Prime Ministers or Monarchs being asked to make goms of themselves at any Fourth of July celebrations.

India – another country where the British thought partition would be an answer – celebrates her Independence on the 15th of August. You will see His Royal Highness the Prince Harry buying beasts at the Fair in Belmullet on that day before you will see the Indian Government feeling the need to invite a Royal to India to confirm that there are no hard feelings, no, really.

Because isn’t that what this invitation is about, really? To reassure ourselves that we are still loved by our betters? There is no other way to explain it. It’s got nothing to with the dead generations from which Ireland derives her long tradition of nationhood, is it?

There’s an argument to be made that the idea of the nation state is a fading one, and the growth of the superpowers – the USA, a United States of Europe / European Federation, Russia, China and the rest, with individual national identities being to the super-state what Ballina is to Mayo, or what Mayo used to be to Ireland, is the way of future.

The future has a tendency to happen whether or not we’re prepared for it. The problem with a 1916 Commemoration Invitation to a British Royal is that such an invitation isn’t looking to that future.

If it were, the invitation would be to Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi and Francois Hollande (we’d have to give Hollande a +1 of course, rather than name his partner – you know what that fella’s like). But nobody’s talking about inviting our current and future partners. The invitation is to our former rulers, who still loom so large in our heads.

Why is that? Why, after ninety years, have we not learned to stand alone? And why, in the spurious “decade of commemoration,” aren’t we talking about the reasons that the Rising happened in the first place? What place will that long tradition of nationhood referred to in the Proclamation have when we celebrate its hundredth anniversary?

Liam Ó Briain, who later went on to become a Professor of Romance Languages in UCD, wrote a memoir, Cuimhní Cinn, of his own time in the Rising as a young man. Ó Briain was stationed on St Stephen’s Green West, near the Royal College of Surgeons. One night, he led a squad of men to raid some nearby premises to see what they could loot to use as barricades.

One of the troops found some old, thick books and suggested they be used, as they were thick enough to be as good as sandbags. Ó Briain examined the books – they were annals of the monasteries, the old books like the Book of Leinster and the Book of Ulster, which contains the first written history of Cúchulainn.

“We can’t use them lads,” Ó Briain told the men. “If we’re fighting this war for anything, we’re fighting for those books.”

The Government hopes to have a role for the British Royal Family at the 1916 Commemoration, and ideally they’re hoping that the Royals will be represented by the heir to the throne himself. What role will those old books have, the old books that Liam Ó Briain thought justified having a Rising in the first place? Or are we still standing by the gate, waiting for a nod from Sir as he rides by? Will the Irish stand there forever?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Hello Again, Square One

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Houses of the Oireachtas rise on Thursday for the Easter break, and do not return (descend? Hardly an inappropriate verb) until May 6th. Siesta time in days gone by, whatever the whining from the members, but not this year. This year there are two elections coming to the boil over the holidays, and every party expects boots on the ground to get the vote out.

The sovereign nation was told that things would never be the same again as the votes of the last election were being counted, the election that routed Fianna Fáil and saw the current Government sweep to power on a five-point-plan ticket. Things, we were told, would never be the same again.

Well. That didn’t work out, did it? A recent opinion poll in the Irish Times saw Fianna Fáil neck-and-neck with Fine Gael, the Government parties using their huge majority to protect the Minister for Justice at the cost of a massive amount of public goodwill. The Government had a mountain of public goodwill when elected. It’s safe to say the needle is now as near to zero as makes no difference.

Enda Kenny, had he so chosen, could have created a Second Republic three years ago by claiming a single-party mandate and daring Fianna Fáil to support him as he carried out Fianna Fáil’s own Troika-dictated blueprint for recovery. The moment Fianna Fáil’s support quivered, Enda could damn them as traitors to the recovery, run to the country and achieve not only the first-ever Fine Gael overall majority, but the end of Fianna Fáil for good and for always.

Enda Kenny choose the more stable option in coalescing with Labour, but now, bizarre though it sounds, the country is too stable. The Crash seemed like a wake-up call at the time, a painful lesson that the state has been run badly and could never be run the same way again.

But nothing has changed. Yes, the bailout is over and the sky didn’t fall in, but what has changed as regards the fundamental structures of the state? The recent controversies would suggest: nothing. Nothing at all has changed, or will ever change.

And as such, the pendulum swings back to its default position and Fianna Fáil, having being laid out on its back by the General Election, could be standing on its own two feet again come the summer, and chomping at the bit for the next general election.

Irish politics has been on a twenty-year cycle since the Second World War. Fianna Fáil governs for sixteen years, the country tires of them and gives the other crowd a go.

Even though it’s been sixteen long years since the other crowd were in charge, they’ve managed to use that time to learn nothing about how to last for longer than one term when they get back. It is genuinely extraordinary.

Last week a British junior minister had to resign because a claim of £45,000 in expenses to which she was not entitled.

In Ireland the Minister for Justice is at the centre of controversies that include using Garda information as a political smear, phone-tapping (official), phone-tapping (unofficial), not reading letters that are his duty to read and the Lord knows what else. One of those alone should have cost his job. Not one of them did, nor ever looked likely to, either.

Where will this all lead? In a game where a week is a famously long time, it’s a risk to project into years. But we’re all friends here so let’s take a shot.

The mystery about who gets elected from our current European super-constituencies exists in inverse proportion to how very little it matters. We could send the Shamrock Rovers first XI for all the difference it’d make. Toothless tigers. Pointless.

What is more interesting are the local elections, and how badly the Government parties fare. Fine Gael and Labour celebrated the exit of the Troika, but they haven’t had a moment’s luck since. And if the local elections are a disaster for the Government parties, could we be looking at a double-heave?

Joan Burton has made noises recently about the need for Eamon Gilmore to have a Ministry based in Ireland, but it’s more likely she’s doing that to twist his tail rather than launch her own bid. Gilmore will go down with his ship. Anyone who took over now would take the blame for the likely massacre at the next general election, and who wants that?

As for Fine Gael, Enda Kenny’s stubborn loyalty to Alan Shatter has depleted his goodwill reserves within the party. The sensible thing to do was to either pension Shatter off or else simply fire him. The longer the thing went on, the more it cost Kenny.

And Kenny’s enemies have never gone away. The question for conspirators now is whether or not to launch their heave before or after Phil Hogan is made European Commissioner, as seems to be the general expectation in the corridors of power. Hogan is Kenny’s chief lieutenant – Kenny will be more vulnerable without Hogan to keep the troops in line. However, if Kenny is sufficiently vulnerable after the local elections, the rebels may decide to treat themselves, on the basis that two heads are better than one.

Independents will be the big winners in the locals, but the big winners in terms of the next general election will be Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, of course. The commentariat insist that the Sinn Féin rise is due to Mary Lou McDonald’s undeniably impressive performances on TV. The opinion polls say that Gerry Adams has the highest leader-satisfaction in the country. So it’s not easy reconcile those opposites.

The real turning point of the next election, then, will be whether Fianna Fáil are the majority or minority party in coalition, and how broad will that coalition have to be. We are too far out to tell, but it’s hard to see the Government turning their fortunes around short of a heave, and the Reform Alliance have missed the most open goal since the foundation of the state. Hello again, Square One. This is Ireland. We’re back.

Friday, April 11, 2014

In Defence of John Waters

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Martin Callinan’s was not the only high-profile exit from Irish public life in recent weeks. After twenty-three as a columnist with the Irish Times, John Waters is moving on.

Why should we care? We should care because Waters has been one of very few voices in the national media to reflect rural concerns, to speak in a recognisably rural voice and to stubbornly refuse to fit in. That stubbornness has cost him and whether he was right to take some of the stands he did is a broader question. But when at his best John Waters wrote about concerns that were addressed nowhere else in the media, and for that his absence should be mourned.

If he never wrote anything before or since, John Waters should be remembered in Irish letters for his 1991 book, Jiving at the Crossroads. Books that accurately describe the Irish rural experience are by no means common. John McGahern is the most talented novelist to write about rural Ireland, but there is no denying that McGahern’s work is unrelentingly bleak, and maybe McGahern is missing some shading there. Now, in the 21st Century, Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is a source of true joy to those who like to see the Ireland they know in the novel form.

In prose, Waters’ great forefather and inspiration was a man who wrote in these very pages, Charlestown’s John Healy. Jiving at the Crossroads has a chapter devoted to Healy, and Healy’s efforts two generations ago to remind the Dublin political establishment that actual people lived in the west of Ireland, and that Connacht wasn’t just some sort of wasteland of bog and snipe grass.

Jiving at the Crossroads is John Waters’ homage to John Healy. The book’s opening is a perfect description of what it was like to be young in rural Ireland in the 1980s. Seán Doherty had just been appointed Minister for Justice, and was being hailed as a conquering hero on his return to his home town.

Waters was not part of the reception committee. He and his friend watched the homecoming from a van in the distance, while listening to Bruce Springsteen singing Darkness on the Edge of Town on the van’s stereo.

And that’s it. That’s being young in rural Ireland in a nutshell. Looking at things going on that you want to escape from, while Springsteen sings on the radio about the land to which you want to escape, about the dream of riding out tonight to case the Promised Land, as The Boss himself put it.

And then, as the book’s narrative moves through the 1980s, Waters realises what we all realise, one way or another. Home might not be the Emerald City in the magical land of Oz, but not many places are. And for all the faults home has, there are a surprising number of places that are worse.

And that’s Waters’ narrative. The struggle to escape from home. The escape, and the realisation that the place into which he wanted to escape never really existed. And then, the struggle to return home, and to match the two parts of the story, where someone is from and where someone is going, into a coherent whole.

Through it all Waters’ personal story is mixed with the national story of the early Haughey years. But the national politics thread of the book isn’t about the specificity of Haughey and that time. It’s about the generality of Irish politics, the sharp divide between rural and urban (meaning Dublin only, by the way) concerns, and the fact that Irish politics is reported in a way that does not reflect how it’s talked about on the ground.

It’s always a source of disquiet for the Dublin establishment when it’s challenged on its bias and Dublin-centrism. But that the bias exists there is no doubt.

When Brian Cowen was elected Taoiseach, Derek Davis remarked on the radio that the Dublin media never understood Albert Reynolds and neither would they understand Cowen. How true that turned out to be.

When Albert Reynolds was Taoiseach, an Irish Times columnist sneered that “running a country isn’t like running a dance-hall in Rooskey.” Another Irish Times columnist described Brian Cowen’s Tullamore homecoming as being like “a country wedding.”

Reader, do you get the feeling sometimes that there are people who can’t quite believe that a Mayoman is Taoiseach? It’s not paranoia. Enda Kenny’s Irish has been criticised by people who do not themselves speak Irish. This, surely, is the ultimate instance of the Dublin media monkey eating its own tail.

Waters was the man who called the Dublin-centric media out. It was Waters who pointed out that building a bullet train from Sligo to Dublin would do wonders for the North-West, but a bullet train would never be built because there was more money in rezoning land in Lucan. It was Waters who fought a lonely battle for fathers’ rights. It was Waters who was the long-haired prophet, crying in the wilderness that the Emperors have no clothes.

Did Waters ever put his foot in it? Yes, he surely did. Waters wrote columns and took positions that were hard to understand – a one-man crusade against parking charges in Dún Laoghaire, an extraordinary paean to a model who died of a drug overdose. But then, which of us are perfect? Which of us has never backed the wrong horse, or loved the wrong thing?

Has Waters’ latest row proved his last? Who knows? Waters has certainly become a hate figure for some people who disagree with some of his views and the current standard of Irish debate seems to prefer attacking the advocate rather than the argument. That’s someone else’s fight. What this column is sure of is that rural Ireland needs a loud, clear and articulate voice, and that John Waters’ was that voice for more than twenty years. Who now will speak for the West in his absence?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What If Sky Are the Big Losers in the GAA Deal?

As the national debate rages about the GAA and Sky Sports, TV3 are like the dog in the night-time in the old Sherlock Holmes story. They should have barked, but they haven’t. What’s going on?

Nobody else has been shy about giving his or her two cents. The negative reaction to the deal has been viscerally emotional. A media giant, run by the worst media mogul in the world, the Dirty Digger himself, taking a slice of Erin’s heritage. Returning the felon’s cap to the fair head of Kathleen Ni Houlihan.

Op-ed pieces mourning the loss of the peasantry’s simple pleasures were written by writers who had successfully hidden their interest in Gaelic Games under a bushel until this current moment of crisis.

Worst of all were Eugene McGee and others who wept for Old Dan, living the back the mountain, the salt of the very earth, who has no truck with that blashted Sky at all. Poor Old Dan.

When Old Dan, a GAA man to his bones, opposed the opening of Croke Park to garrison games, he was told he was a backwoodsman and castigated for standing in the way of Progress-with-a-capital-P. Now Old Dan is everybody’s pal. It’s not just the sweet poitín that has Old Dan’s head spinning.

And then on the other side, there have been many reasons behind the positive reactions. Some people look forward to increased coverage. Some people believe Sky is the means by which the Gael can evangelise his games to the wider world. And some people like to see RTÉ get a puck in the snout for inflicting Pat Spillane on the nation, year after year.

And even through all this debate, not a peep from TV3, other than a column from Matt Cooper in the Sunday Times, the busiest man in show business. Nothing. Isn’t that odd?

Sky is getting an exclusive selection of runts from the GAA’s summer litter for three years. The station is known for not sparing the hype, but we’ll see what they’re made of when they’re live from Markiewicz Park on some day when the rain is sheeting in off the Atlantic, while Fermanagh and Longford do battle in Round 2 of the Qualifiers.

Here’s another odd thing to throw in the pot: generally speaking, when someone sells his or her soul, her or she tries to get a big price for it. Even the miserable Doctor Faustus did his best to ask for dinner, drinks and dancing in the moonlight with Helen of Troy herself before you-know-who turned up to take him off to the hot spot.

The GAA are saying that this deal is a slight increase in revenue from what went before. Prior to this, the idea was that Sky would sell their best bull to get a slice of the Gaelic action. That doesn’t look to be the case now. Surely Sky couldn’t have got the rights – cheap?

In his Sunday Times column, Matt Cooper remarks that the GAA made no mention of TV3’s contribution to GAA broadcasting in this deal. That’s odd too. So, let’s construct a perfectly hypothetical hypothesis.

What if Sky never expected to win the rights in the first place? What if there are currently some geezers in stripy shirts in Wapping felling like they just woke up married in Vegas, and to an Irish colleen at that?

Could it be possible that TV3 lowballed the GAA? TV3 isn’t exactly flush with cash at the moment. The press has recently run stories about the horrific prospect of the final Xposé! featuring what’s fabulous for the dole queue in 2014. Could it be that Sky won the rights by default, because a strapped-for-cash TV3 thought the GAA would never look to Sky at all?

And here’s another thing. Who says the Sky coverage will be any good? People have been talking about what a great job Sky have done on darts. They didn’t have to – darts has been established as a TV sport since the 1980s.

What made Sky was that they hired Sid Waddell, one of the greatest sports commentators of all time, to do their coverage. Now Sid himself has moved on to walk in the asphodel, will darts go down the tubes? Snooker used to be a big deal on TV once, as was showjumping. There are no guarantees.

It was nice to think that as soon as the Sky deal was brokered, the Wapping geezers immediately made their way to the Kingdom of Kerry to offer Dara Ó Cinnéide a king’s ransom to front their coverage. But when you stop and think about it, why would they bother for Saturday qualifier games?

How much do Sky spend on their NFL coverage? Not. A. Lot, as Kevin Cadle himself might. Put. It, a man who could give any RTÉ chancers who can’t quite believe their luck a run for their money.

Or how much do Sky spend in presenting their Spanish soccer? It can’t hold a candle to Channel 4’s Italian soccer coverage of twenty years ago, with the t’rrfic AC Jimbo presenting.

Sky’s rugby coverage is poor. Their coverage of the Lions was embarrassing in the summer. The Lions are a miracle, a throwback to a different age of different values in rugby. Sky never got that for a second, and just had Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell embarrass themselves over and over again.

The Lions are a symphony; Sky covered them like they were something by Big Tom and the Mainliners. If Sky can’t get rugby, what chance they’ll get the GAA? People who are hoping for GAA Paradiso may have to think again.

Sky will be novel and worthwhile, but it won’t last. The GAA is like Guinness. You can get it all over the world, but it only tastes right at home.

Hopefully, the market will be stronger the next time broadcast rights are available because the GAA needs the money to compete against other sports (and not to just hoard it in great vaults under Croke Park, as some journalists who should know better seem to think).

In the meantime, let’s leave the final word with Seán Bán Breathnach on the Seo Spóirt. SBB said that, whatever about TV, people talking about exclusive radio rights are talking through their hats. RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta is entitled to broadcast every ball kicked and every sliother pucked in Ireland, so exclusivity doesn’t come into it. Ná laga a comhartha riamh.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Why Shouldn't the Rest of the Country Have a Say About the Dublin Mayor?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

There is a vote taking place this Monday night that directly affects the people of every county in Ireland, but the vote will be held in Dublin alone. Three of the four Dublin local councils are voting on whether nor not a plebiscite should be held in the city to see if Dublin should have a Mayor with powers outside of the national system. Dublin City Council has already backed the proposal 50-0, with one abstention.

The argument is that a directly-elected Mayor with considerably enhanced powers would make Dublin, the capital city of Ireland, even more competitive in attracting foreign direct investment. If the capital is better off, we’re all better off.

But reader, is this true? Proposers of the Dublin Super-Mayor say that Dublin is in competition with other cities, rather than the rest of the country. But the funds fast-tracked into Dublin to power the Super-Mayoralty would not be coming from other cities, would they? No; they would be coming from the same place they’ve always come. If the IDA-Dublin is competing against the IDA-Rest-of-Ireland, who do you think is going to win?

In the past fifteen to twenty years, Dublin has leeched people from everywhere else on the island, all drained from the south, the east and the north, slowly but inevitably funneled into the capital. Is that good for Ireland? Is it even good for Dublin?

People will tell you that this is just the natural march of progress. That nobody put a gun to these people’s heads, they’ve come to Dublin of their own free wills and they’re getting on just fine, thank you very much. And that’s true. Nobody put a gun to anyone’s head to move to Dublin. But to describe Dublin’s exponential development as inevitable simply isn’t true.

When it comes to planning and building in this country, you can’t just do what you like. You have to fill out forms and pay fees and hope your plans fit in with the general plan. You can’t move to Dublin just because you want to; the Government planners are already expecting you. Your moving to Dublin was all part of a plan on their part.

Equally, when foreign companies come to Dublin to invest and set up shop, they have to be allowed to do so. The final choice will always be their own, of course, but is it too much to ask that the Government of the day should accept its responsibility to all of the country, and not just the capital?

A Government for all of the country could have noted the coming of the multi-nationals when the corporation tax exemption was introduced. And they could then have made plans that, as the companies came, some would be sent to Cork, and some to Limerick, and some to Galway, and so on. These regional centres would grow, and then satellites around those centres could grow too, in a marvellous rising tide that would lift all boats.

But that wasn’t what happened, was it? It was decided that the country, in the form of its people, could all be crammed into Dublin, into two-bed apartments with one parking space or else vast, sprawling, soulless estates on the edge of the city. If that left the migrants’ own native places deserted and empty, well, such is the price of progress.

The fact this movement of people and subsequent building boom all occurred at a time of widespread planning corruption in Dublin Corporation is, of course, entirely coincidental.

By the time the Government did turn its attentions to the regions, it was too late. The only attempt at decentralization was to split up Government Departments, which is like trying to lose weight by chopping off a limb. You lose weight alright, but you’ll have entirely missed the point of the exercise.

The multinationals are embedded in Dublin now, and are going nowhere. If there were to be placed around the country, the time was at the start. Right now, they exist in their own ecosystem. As well as our freckles and laughter and lovely red hair, one of the reasons that multinationals want to locate in Dublin is because of the other multinationals here already.

Twitter covet people working in Google and Facebook, Facebook covets the Twitter coders and so on. If you want someone to move from their current job to yours, having them move house as well is an extra fence to jump. The current situation, of the “best and brightest” all squirrelled into Dublin, suits the multinationals very well, thank you. As for the regions – well, that’s the Government’s problem, isn’t it?

The deep unhappiness in rural Ireland at the moment over pylons and windfarms might not be so much to do with the things themselves as with a ruling elite that seems at a greater and greater distance from ordinary people. The fact that the current Taoiseach is himself one of the most personable of men, and a Mayoman to boot, just adds to the confusion.

When the United States were founded, they built an entirely new capital, Washington DC, to make a new beginning for the new country. Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in 1960, in part because they were concerned about over-population in Rio and under-population in the rest of country.

The USA and Brazil are considerably bigger than Ireland of course, but it is a pity that the founders of the state didn’t consider moving the capital. Looking back, the 1916 Generation were ill-prepared for winning the war, and never really knew what they were doing, other than trying to survive. And as such, to maintain the status quo was the easier option.

But the easier option isn’t always the best. Ireland has been ruled from Dublin since the early 13th Century, when Dublin Castle was built. Maybe breaking that lineage could have done something to create the new start that a new nation needed. But it didn’t happen, and still Dublin dominates the country. Does the capital city lead the nation, or feed off it?