Thursday, October 23, 2014

We Have Learned Nothing in Irish Politics

First published in the Western People on Monday.

I, for one, welcome our new overlord.
The analysis of the by-election results in Dublin South-West and Roscommon South-Leitrim has focused heavily on how voters are turning away from the major Irish political parties. This was especially obvious in Dublin South-West, where Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour managed just 26% of the vote between them.

To put that in perspective, there has never been a government in the history of the state that hasn’t featured at least one of those parties in its makeup, and now they can only manage one vote in four between the three of them.

Why the public are so disillusioned is certainly due to a combination of reasons, one of which seems under-discussed in the national media. Could the disconnect between the mainstream political parties and the mainstream of Irish political life have arisen because the mainstream political parties have treated the electorate like fools since the crash, if not before?

For instance: during the end of the bailout debate in the Dáil last year, the majority of speakers made a point of commending the Ballyhea Says No Protest.

Ballyhea is a village in County Cork. Every Sunday without fail since March 6th, 2011, a group of locals have held a protest against the bank bailout.

There is a better chance of the GAA stripping Kerry of this year’s All-Ireland title and awarding it to Mayo in apology for events in Limerick than there is of the Ballyhea Says No protest group doing anything other than getting colds now that the weather has got chilly again. The Ballyhea protest is an attempt to get toothpaste back into the tube or water to flow uphill. The world doesn’t work like that. It just doesn’t.

Ballyhea says it’s not our debt. Of course it’s our debt. If it weren’t our debt, we wouldn’t be bloody paying for it, would we? This is how the world works.

Does anybody stand up and say this in the Dáil? No, they don’t. If the people were told that the milk is spilled and is now gone, never to come back, could they deal with it? Of course they could. Milk gets spilled all the time and the world doesn’t end. The world carries on just the same. But the Irish political establishment doesn’t trust the Irish electorate to come to terms with that.

Whether they were right or wrong, whether they were had their arms twisted or they were just thick, the government that signed the bank guarantee were fully mandated by the people to sign that guarantee. That’s what representative government is.

The sovereign people elect representatives to make decisions on the sovereign people’s behalf. If the government screws it up, it’s partly the fault of the sovereign people who elected them in the first place.

This isn’t news. This principle goes back to the Ancient Greeks, before the birth of Christ. There is nothing novel in this.

But representative democracy can do something that toothpaste-back-in-tube movements can’t do. They elect someone else. And that is what the voters in the two by-elections are clearly eager to do.

That is what they did the last time, but they were sold a pup. The people remain eager to get what they voted for, and so we get the voting patterns in the recent by-elections. The sad thing for the country, though, is that the new dispensation is just as likely to be a mutt as the last.

Michael Fitzmaurice, the new TD for Roscommon South Leitrim, seems a good and honest man. The type of man on whom you can rely to help you when you need it and pretend after that he did nothing at all. In the case of Roscommon South-Leitrim, the man’s own decency and likeability may have had as much to do with his victory as anything else.

But the reality is that he’s just one man. One man can’t govern. To govern, you need to form alliances, and how many Michael Fitzmaurices are there in the Dáil? The Independents dream of some sort of we’re-all-Independent-together faction in the next Dáil, but where is the common ground between Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice and Michael Lowry? The gap is too big to bridge.

And then you have the socialists. Paul Murphy, Joe Higgins, Clare Daly and Joan Collins were all in the Socialist Party once. Presuming that the Anti-Austerity Alliance isn’t one and the same with the Socialist Party, the four of them are now in four different parties, even though they all agree with each other on policy.

They all agree, and they can’t get on. They won’t be forming any government, or if they do, it’ll probably have broken down in the time it takes them to go the Phoenix Park to get their seals of office from the President.

Besides. The establishment parties aren’t alone in not being entirely upfront with the electorate. Paul Murphy was elected in Dublin South-West because he is anti-water charge. Most people who voted for him won’t be liable for water charges in the first place. There are places in Dublin South-West that are so deprived, so far removed from mainstream life, that even to drive through them feels like having crossed into another country.

If there were honest politics in this country, the only issue on the doorsteps in areas like Jobstown and Cherry Orchard should be that candidates would move Heaven and Earth to keep children in school and on the straight and narrow. Dysfunctional though the adults’ lives may be, if it can be brought through to them that it may be possible to save the children from perpetuating the cycle, that would a treble victory for the people, the community and the nation.

What did we get instead? Extraordinary placards that beseeched us to stick our water meters up our bottoms. Not quite Meagher’s speech from the dock.

So here we are. Faith is lost in the establishment parties. The only people to rally to Lucinda Creighton’s flag were those who had nowhere else to go. The alternative parties hope to get their chance but, if their slogans are a guide, it’s hard not to think of the men to whom WB Yeats referred in The Fisherman one hundred and one years ago – “no knave brought to book / Who has won a drunker cheer.”

There are no leaders here. The country continues to go around and around in pointless, hopeless circles.

Forgive us, Frau Merkel. Come back to Erin, Mr Chopra. We promise to be nicer to you than those beastly Scots, Mr Cameron. Please. Somebody take us in. We just can’t make it on our own.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Margaret Burke Sheridan - Visse d'Arte

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The birthday of the greatest female singer Ireland has ever produced falls on this Wednesday. She is not a national figure because she was an opera singer, and opera has never been popular in Ireland. It’s a pity though – opera is one of the great achievements in human art, and Margaret Burke Sheridan was one of our own.

Very much one of our own, in fact. Margaret Sheridan was born in a house on the Mall in Castlebar on October 15th, 1889, the fifth child of the postmaster in Castlebar at the time, John Burke Sheridan.

Margaret’s mother died when Margaret was five, and her father died when she was eleven. Effectively orphaned – the Sheridan family don’t seem to have been that close - Margaret was raised to adulthood in the Dominican convent at 19 Eccles Street, Dublin 7, now part of the Mater Hospital. And it was while a student with the Dominicans that Margaret Burke Sheridan discovered that she had a gift.

At the age of nineteen, Sheridan left Ireland to study music at the Royal Academy in London. She was a success, but there was a war on and the opera scene in London was something of a backwater. If you wanted to be a star, you had to go to Italy, where opera is all.

Sheridan went to Rome, and started training again under a teacher called Alfredo Martini. And it was while training that she made the decision that set her path for the rest of her life.

A singer in a production of La Bohème in the Constanzi Opera House (now the Teatro dell’Opera) fell ill while Margaret Sheridan was staying in the Quirinale Hotel. The Quirinale is on the other side of the block from the opera house, and the manager of the opera house had heard Margaret practicing - Sheridan was in the habit of practicing her singing at her open window in the hotel. The manager took a notion, and sent a cable to find out if the nobody wanted to become a star in four days, filling as Mimì in Giancomo Puccini’s beloved opera about young love.

Fantastic, you would think. But it wasn’t that simple. Martini, Margaret’s teacher, was dead set against the idea, and for reasons that are do with what makes opera such a challenging art form.

The singing that we do in the shower or when loaded with porter is a natural ability. Sometimes the singing isn’t too bad, sometimes it’s wretched – it’s down to accidents of birth.

But the singing done by opera singers isn’t at all natural. Yes, there are natural voices, but they have to be meticulously trained, not only to make sweeter, richer sounds, but to be able to make those sounds on demand, consistently, for show after show, for performance after performance.

Margaret Burke Sheridan had a natural gift. But she wasn’t yet fully in control of her voice. She could sing, but she couldn’t sing in such a way that she could guarantee her singing wouldn’t impair her ability to sing in future. That’s how severe operatic singing is – if you don’t know what you’re doing, you are in danger of destroying your voice every time you open your mouth.

On the other hand, Sheridan had been living off the kindness of strangers since her father died. Different benefactors had invested in her talent, but it’s not the same as making your own money. And opportunities to sing a major role in a major theatre don’t come along every day. What use was there in completing her training if she were to have a perfect instrument but nowhere to sing? Besides; she could always go back and finish up her training, couldn’t she?

Sheridan made her choice. She sang Mimì in Rome on February 3rd, 1918, and instantly became a star. Even today, Italians don’t always take to foreigners singing Italy’s national art form, but they couldn’t resist Sheridan.

For twelve years she ruled the operatic stage, something John McCormack could never do. Margaret Sheridan sang in London, Naples, Monte Carlo and Milan, and was acclaimed by all. And then, after a performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden in June, 1930, she never sang again.

She tried to, of course. At first, she would claim a cold or a chest infection and pull out of performances, in the fashion of primas donnas. But as the years went by it became clearer that she would never return to the stage. Alfredo Martini had been right. Without the proper grounding and technique, Margaret’s talent was a castle built on sand. It would last for so long but it was always doomed. And when the doom arrived, there would be no way to rescue it.

Sheridan was still a star. She was offered concert recitals – the form that made McCormack a household name and a very wealthy man - but she turned them down. As far as Sheridan was concerned, it was opera or nothing. Opera isn’t just the singing – it’s the acting, the music, the performance, the whole. To just sing without the rest of opera’s heady mix would be like drinking black tea. It just wasn’t the same.

Sheridan turned a brave face to the world, but the remaining thirty-odd years of her life were tough on her. She came back to live in Ireland but we are not a great nation for accepting our countrymen and countrywomen who have had success abroad.

But Margaret Sheridan was generous to the next generation, and did what she could for them. In her definitive biography of Sheridan, Anne Chambers writes of a Feis Ceoil winner, Phyllis Sullivan, who was tutored for a time by Margaret Sheridan.

Sullivan recalled Sheridan as being temperamental, but never mean. If Sullivan made a mistake, Sheridan would sing the line properly herself (while always avoiding high notes). Sullivan asked Sheridan why she didn’t sing in public anymore.

“My voice is finished,” replied Sheridan. “It’s all right singing for you, darling, but I would break on my top notes and I am nervous.”

Margaret Burke Sheridan died on April 16th, 1958, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The back of her headstone reads “Margherita Sheridan, Prima Donna. La Scala, Milan. Covent Garden, London.” Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam uasal.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bias in the Media

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Although his politics are shared by very few people in the country, Joe Higgins, TD, has always been lauded for being a “diverse” voice in the Irish political landscape. Political correspondents often remark in their end-of-term parliamentary reviews how good it is to have Joe Higgins in the Dáil to provide “balance” to debates.

Well. We all must be careful what we wish for, and the national media discovered this the hard way when the terms of reference to the long-awaited Banking Inquiry were announced recently.

The Banking Inquiry was conceived, originally, as a fine instrument for dipping the previous government into a vat of boiling oil. However, that methodology would probably give some busybody in the UN another reason to give out to us, so the current government had to adjust the terms of reference.

The Banking Inquiry is now set to investigate all banking practice in Ireland from 1992 until the crash, some sixteen years. And just as everybody was about to sign off on this, Joe Higgins put his hand up and made a last-minute suggestion.

Higgins proposed that the inquiry examine “the development of a prevailing consensus, including the role of mass media and advertising and mortgage brokers, financial consultants and property development and sales companies.”

Since the crash, we’ve all heard a lot about “groupthink” in Irish political life. But Joe Higgins’s amendment to the Banking Inquiry is the first effort to discover what exactly this groupthink is, where does it come from, what does it do and is it a good or a bad thing.

Not everyone is happy about this. Ciarán Lynch, TD, chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was on Morning Ireland the week before last to discuss the Inquiry, and he seemed a little shocked to be hauled over the coals about the media angle.

“The media has no legislative power,” the Morning Ireland presenter kept repeating. Mr Lynch may have considered replying that a government backbencher doesn’t have all that much power either, but probably thought he’d only get into more trouble.

It is unlikely the nation wll be any the wiser after the Banking Inquiry. Anyone who expects anything other that stonewalling from witnesses and grandstanding from committee members hasn’t been following these Oireachtas Committee very closely.

People can be compelled to appear but they are under no obligation to say anything of any interest whatever once they’re there. So it’s all for show, really, a lot like the Houses of the Oireachtas themselves.

What makes this twist about the media interesting though is that it gives us an opportunity to consider the question of bias. All news reporting has to deal with bias, from the very start of a news cycle. By reporting one thing and not reporting another, any media organisation has already taken a step that may be affected by bias, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s how the media organisation deals with that bias inherent in the news-gathering process itself that’s interesting. And there are two schools of thought here.

The current fashion is for admitting bias from the start. More and more media organisations don’t even try to be fair, but simply tell their audiences what they want to hear. The right-wing Fox News in the USA is (in)famous for its partisan reporting, but there are plenty of channels in the US who shout for the Democrats too. The problem is that people don’t get to see both points of view at once, and this causes a democratic deficit.

The classical model of good reporting in journalism is to acknowledge bias but to strive to overcome it at every opportunity. This is the model practiced here in Ireland – in theory, anyway – but it seems Joe Higgins is inclined to double-check that idea, just in case.

Does Higgins have a point? Well. It certainly is a remarkable thing that the entire country was convinced that the housing market could provide infinite wealth for so long. It also a remarkable thing that when the crash came, the country was equally convinced there was only one reason behind it. How much of these twin illusions was due to the way the boom, the bust and the repercussions were reported in the media?

The media is all-pervasive in our lives. When you get up, you know if the shower was hot or cold, you know if you could find your socks, you know if there’s milk in the fridge when you open the door. You could look out the window to see what the weather is like, but you know that could change in fifteen minutes or less.

For everything else that impacts on your life, you need the media. Do you need a new car for the morning commute? Can you afford one? Are car prices going up or down? Are petrol prices going up or down? What will it cost to tax and insure the thing? Should you forget the family saloon and buy some sort of jeep, because the road is all potholes and it costs money to repair broken axles?

You don’t have time to study economics to see overall market trends. You can’t keep up with the geopolitics of the oil-producing countries, or the physics of all the new ways of getting oil out of the ground. And you certainly can’t pop in to Leinster House and find out what future taxation and infrastructure policy will be. There are plenty in there who have no idea no more than ourselves.

So you rely on the media for this information. You watch the news and listen to it on the radio and buy a daily paper along with your weekly Western and you take a sneaky glance at the web at work too.

But reader – can you fully believe what you read in the papers, hear on the radio or see on the TV? Is everybody trying really hard to maintain objectivity, or do they go on the occasional crusade every now again? Or not even that – could it be that one side of the argument is presented, and a balancing counter-argument just doesn’t make an appearance? Who exactly is telling us what to do?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Looking Past the GAA's Black Card Propaganda

The science of statistics, for all the black arts associated with it, has one golden rule. It is this: correlation does not imply causation.

Because A and B happened in sequence does not mean that A caused B, or that B is the result of A. If it starts raining on the day you leave home without your coat, that does not mean that your coatlessness caused the shower. It is much more likely the rain was caused by the meeting of weather fronts of different temperatures than your own childlike optimism.

In much the same way, the black card statistics trumpeted so loudly by the GAA at the end of last week should be met with a certain skepticism. All statistics should be met with skepticism of course, but ones make causal claims as – shall we say, ambitious? – as these are very difficult to take.

The press release on the GAA’s own website boldly claimed that “With the introduction of the black card, the average number of points per game in the 2014 championship is roughly 9.5% higher than in 2013; the number of points scored has increased by just shy of five points per game since 2010.”

When you read “2010,” you may have heard a loud whirring sound. That is the sound of spinning. 2010 has nothing on God’s green earth to do with the black card. The only reason its tagged on there is because five sounds like a lot.

The black card has not been popular, not least as so few people know what exactly a black card offense is. But rather than admit they got it wrong, the GAA finds itself like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, denying the bleeding obvious. They are fooling nobody who takes a minute to think about it.

But if the black card isn’t the reason there were more scores in Gaelic football in 2014 than there were in 2013, what is? It could be any one of a number of reasons.

Gavin Cummiskey in the Irish Times theorises that “Dublin’s record -breaking summer of scoring must be factored into the increase.” Bless. This blog has taken Cummiskey at his word, and has indeed factored Dublin’s record-breaking summer into the increase.

If you remove the games that Dublin won from the 2014 scoring averages, the average total score per game drops from 34.92 to 34.4. The earth really didn’t move because of Dublin.

So what could it be? Are there any patterns deeper in the data?

Here are two tables. The first shows the average total points per game since the qualifiers were introduced in 2001, broken down by year and competition (the four provincial championships, the qualifiers and the All-Ireland series that starts in August).

And here are the average margins, broken down the same way.

The numbers are colour-coded, from green for the highest totals or margins, into white for average, down to red for the lowest. There is no sharp correlation between margin and totals per game, but there is certainly a case to be made for further investigation into the idea that the current inequality of the Championship is a greater factor in more points being scored.

Are more points being scored because more hidings are being handed out than heretofore? Look at Connacht. Is it a co-incidence that the highest scoring totals coincide with the current Mayo dominance?

Look at Ulster. Ulster is consistently lowest in totals and lowest in margin of victory. But isn’t a low margin of victory a good thing? Doesn’t it mean the games were competitive? Doesn’t everybody know that Ulster is easily the most competitive province? So why are the GAA squawking about point totals as measures of football excellence?

The statistics for the All-Ireland series sit badly with the theory that the greater scoring is significant of teams getting hammered rather than beautiful football being encouraged by the introduction of the black card – the high totals are not matched by high margins, as they are for some years in the other competitions.

But there are mitigating factors here. Firstly, the last eight teams in the country are the best teams in the country. This has been established in both theory and practice over the past five or more years. Naturally, then, these teams score more than teams that aren’t as good.

It was also in the All-Ireland series that the referees’ reluctance to issue black cards became glaringly obvious. The GAA press release tells us that black cards were issued at a rate of 0.8 per Championship game. How many of those black cards were issued in the All-Ireland series?

Four black cards were issued in the eight games of the All-Ireland series. One in the four quarter-finals, two in the three semi-finals, and one in the final. That’s a rate of 0.5 cards per Championship Game among the games that were the highest-scoring of all, contrasted with the 0.8 overall average in the Championship.

The GAA are taking the seanfhocal literally, and are trying to say black is white. End this black card farce now.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Redmond Problem

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton is not to be dissuaded in his support for John Redmond as a great Irish patriot and parliamentarian. But is John Bruton aware that the case he is currently building could blow up in his face and help sweep Sinn Féin to power just in time for the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising?

John Burton’s advocacy of John Redmond is part of the wider campaign to water down any commemoration of the 1916 Rising. This watering-down campaign has not been announced as policy, as there are concerns that such watering down would go down badly with the people. As such, the campaign has been a little more subtle.

There was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland, which received blanket media coverage. There was President Higgins’s return visit to the United Kingdom, which was covered no less.

There has been this spurious “Decade of Commemoration,” where successive governments have tried to lessen the impact of the 100th Anniversary of the Rising by saying the Rising was just one of a number of things that happened at that time.

As a strategy, this is in the same league as a callow youth’s plan to sneak a copy of some naughty magazine in between a National Geographic and this week’s Western as he approaches a till manned by a live, actual female.

No-one is fooled. The people don’t care. We had a year-long commemoration of the 1913 Lockout in Dublin last year, and this year’s love-bombing of the 100th anniversary of the start of the “Great” War. Both were met by the same shrug as the checkout girl’s, who has zero interest in the callow youth’s taste in periodicals. The nation doesn’t care about a decade of commemoration, but there seems to be a big green X marking the spot for either April 24th or Easter Monday of 2016 somewhere at the back of our minds.

That the Rising still means so much to people is surprising, and certainly not in line with how successive governments have been viewing the situation. It only became obvious after the Presidential visit to the United Kingdom when, in a flush of enthusiasm, an invitation was extended for some members of the British royal family to come over and be part of the fun.

The nation reacted with horror and the proposal hasn’t been heard of since.

The reason that Irish governments have been very wary of the 1916 Anniversary is that the Rising was legitimised after the fact. Padraig Pearse and the other rebel leaders had no mandate to do what they did. They couldn’t declare a republic in 1916 because they didn’t represent anybody but themselves in 1916.

The 1916 mandate was backdated by the first Dáil in 1919, and since it all turned out grand in the end, nobody but an anti-national spoilsport would go questioning the morality of the whole thing. For the first fifty years after independence, everyone wore the white cockade.

And then, on January 4th, 1969, a march in support of a crazy notion of one-man, one-vote in Northern Ireland was ambushed on its way into Derry, to the supreme indifference of the watching policemen as a fusillade of stones, iron bars and nail-studded sticks rained down on the marchers.

One thing led to another and by the 1970s getting tanked up and singing Seán South of Garryowen south of the border didn’t seem like harmless fun anymore. Nobody wanted to mention the war.

That war-that-wasn’t took thirty years and over three thousand lives until a serendipitous accident saw political leaders in Ireland, Britain and the USA come to power, leaders who were willing take chances and bend rules for peace.
There are those who are sickened by retired terrorists swaggering around the corridors of power instead of doing stir in some suitable jail, but that is the price of peace. People have to turn a blind eye to things in the name of the greater good.

Until a bull charges into a china shop as John Bruton did when he condemned the 1916 leaders in a speech delivered at the Irish Royal Academy on the day of the Scottish Referendum.

For Bruton, the Irishmen who fought for Britain in the “Great” War were patriots, whereas those who rebelled in 1916 were not fighting a just war. But Bruton makes a logical error here. He presents reaction to the 1916 Rising as an either/or scenario.

If you are against the 1916 Rising, you must be in favour of Redmond, and you must therefore do your duty by the Empire. Meaning, in this case, head for the Somme two months after the Rising and get mown down by the German machine-guns in your thousands and thousands.

There was a slogan that was common in Ireland during those troubled times one hundred years ago – “Neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland.” In his speech at the Royal Irish Academy, Bruton has eliminated that third way as an option at the time, and has presented war as inevitable. The only question was whether you marched under the tricolour or the Union Jack, but march and kill or be killed you surely would.

And that’s a very inappropriate road for Bruton to have gone down. Just how inappropriate was spotted immediately by the current Minister for Agriculture (and favourite to become the next leader of Fine Gael), Simon Coveney. On the morning of Bruton’s speech, Minister Coveney tweeted “For the record: I believe much of John Bruton’s commentary on 1916 is simply wrong and does not represent the views of Fine Gael supporters.” Duly noted, Minister.

It may be that Bruton doesn’t realise that he polarised the choice, and it was just unfortunate wording on his part. Or it may be that he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, and believes that, in times of peace and (returned?) prosperity, the nation will follow the good man Redmond ahead of gunmen like Breen, Barry and O’Malley.

But nationalism works at a level beyond the senses. When it boils down to flags, the Irish nation, for all the faults of the state, will rally under only one, and it won’t be the one still flying over Edinburgh. That is the nature of the patriot game.