Monday, November 30, 2020

A Covid-19 Christmas


There are two schools of thought in dealing with a pandemic. There is the medical, which favours shutting everything down, never leaving the house, and boiling your extremities daily. And there is the economic, the laissez-faire capitalism approach where people die or do not, and the state has no part to play other than ensuring that the process of buying and selling continues uninterrupted.

The government have done some in-and-out running with regard to which school they’re following in their pandemic strategy. In April or May, at the end of first, full-duck lockdown, Taoiseach Varadkar believed nothing could be so terrible as to open up and then have to close again. When Doctor Holohan returned to NPHET and advised that the lockdown needed to be tightened in October, Tánaiste Varadkar pronounced that the advisers advise and governments govern, and that should be the end of it. Doctor Holohan’s advice was implemented two weeks later.

Now the government are four-square behind a different Christmas, but a good Christmas. A Christmas Ryan Tubridy can be proud of, and with no gloomy medicos acting as bad-news bears to spoil everybody’s fun.

Does the government ever wonder if Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, know it’s Christmastime at all? Is the government at all concerned whether or not Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, can tell if any particular environment is a wet pub or the perfume counter in Brown Thomas?

The government is betting that the people’s need for a “normal” Christmas, and the economy’s need for Christmas business, is greater than both the people’s intolerance of a third lockdown or the potential crisis caused by the HSE’s unknown ability to deal with a surge of post-Christmas cases.

Pat Leahy made the case for the economic benefit in a recent Irish Times column. The problem is that those economic arguments were no less true during the time the government locked down as they are now when it wants to lift lockdown. What is different? What is it about now that is was not the case a month ago, other than political opportunity? Could we, perhaps, save some money by not burning it on the altar of the Children’s Hospital instead?

On the people tolerating another lockdown, that seems to be a fifty-fifty proposition if an Ireland Thinks poll in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday is to be believed. If Ireland Thinks polling is anything like their website that may not be a worry. If the poll is on the level, then the government, and the political establishment in general, have badly misjudged the public mood.

How much the government suffer in consequence of this depends on how much the people suffer, which itself depends on how toasty things get for the HSE.

The HSE is not having a good pandemic. The HSE doesn’t do well in normal times – what hope have they in times of pandemic? This is under-reported in the press. There may be different reasons for this, but there can be no doubt that the government are handing out green jerseys at official and unofficial briefings morning, noon and night, and urging the media to “act responsibly” for the good of the nation.

But keeping schtum on the dysfunction of the Health Service does not serve the good of the nation. It serves the good of those who benefit from that dysfunction, to the detriment of the good of the nation. The media can only serve the good of the nation by keeping the nation informed of what the nation needs to know. And the nation needs to know that if there is a spike in cases to which the government is slow to respond, is likely to see a lot of business.

The argument against this is that the virus is not as deadly as it was. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that the virus has mutated, about which your correspondent knows nothing, quite frankly. The second is that treatment has improved as the medical world has had a year to study the thing. This is demonstrably true.

Against this is the remarkable sloth and inertia of the Health Service in Ireland. Change comes dropping slow in the HSE. Its ability to triage cases in an epidemic situation has never been tested but reader, as it creaks so badly at the best of times, what hope has it of surviving the worst?

A state’s ability to ease lockdowns in times of epidemic is proportional to the state’s ability to trace outbreaks to their origin. In New Zealand, they’re able to trace down to the cluster. Thirteen cases at a wedding in Wellington. Twenty-five cases at the Ruby Princess Cruise Ship in Hawke’s Bay. 

The highlight of Ireland’s case-tracing came in August of this year, when we managed to trace an outbreak to somewhere in Offaly, Laois, or Kildare. This does little for confidence in an agile response to a post-Christmas outbreak.

The importance of speed of response, again, is critical because of the speed with which the virus is propagated. A quick example. Let’s say you decided to walk north up O’Connell Street, and give yourself six minutes to do it, which is about what it takes at an average walking speed of five kilometres an hour.

If you travel at that speed, after three minutes you’re a little past the spire and the next three will see you at Parnell Street. But if you’re not travelling at that speed – if you’re travelling at an R-number of 1.1, say – you reach the spire only after 5 minutes, 53 seconds. You then cover the remaining half of the street in seven seconds. In another minute, that rate of acceleration will have you in Belfast.

The R-number doesn’t map exactly to rates of cases, of course, but it is useful in showing how quickly a health system can be overwhelmed if infections aren’t spotted and dealt with it in time. 5’53” to the Spire. Seven seconds the rest of the way. One minute more to Belfast. Happy Christmas.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Ballad of Football Jesus

The Ballad of Football Jesus

I don’t care if it rains or freezes
‘Cos I got my Football Jesus
Waitin’ on the sideline in the Hyde
In the Hy-ide, in the Hy-ide
Waitin’ on the sideline in the Hyde

I ain’t scared of snow or hail
Tulsk Lord Edward or Western Gael
With Football Jesus sittin’ by my side
By my si-ide, by my si-ide
With Football Jesus sittin’ by my side

He’ll jump for kickouts if they’re there
He’ll let her in quick to the edge of the square
There’s nothing Football Jesus cannot do
Cannot do-ooo, cannot do-ooo
There’s nothing Football Jesus cannot do

He can’t be bought for a bag of silver
Just give him the ball and he’ll deliver
Football Jesus’s here for me and you
Me and you-oo, me and you-oo,
Football Jesus’s here for me and you

Monday, November 02, 2020

How Do You Solve a Problem like Varadkar?

Carefully parsing the media over the weekend – or such media as were arsed working the weekend – one gets the feeling that An Tánaiste and the government are safe. An Tánaiste will have to say sorry to all the boys and girls in the class, but that will be the end of it.

Your correspondent is not so sure. Besides; if the media had their way the story would never have broken in the first place. This story came from the clear blue sky – Village magazine is by no means mainstream – and it was not mentioned on RTÉ at all until different TDs started asking questions on Saturday afternoon. Once these genies escape their bottles it’s not easy know just how to get them back. So let’s examine the battlefield and do a little war-gaming, to pass the long winter’s day away.

The Substantive Issue

Did Leo Varadkar behave unethically in leaking confidential information to his buddy while Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach? Well, dur. Of course he did. If there were such things as ethics in Irish public life, he’d be gone already, and anybody who says any different is either too innocent for the world or else on the payroll.

Consider recent resignations from public office. Why did Alan Shatter have to resign as Minister for Justice? Why did Enda Kenny have to resign as Taoiseach? Why did Frances Fitzgerald have to resign? What did they do wrong that went so far beyond the bounds that they had to go?

The answer is: nothing. Each went because it was politically expedient to throw him or her under the bus. Shatter went to save the guards from being exposed as being up to some very funny business indeed (and the fact that nobody likes him). Enda went because Leo decided that his time had come, and he had enough people in Fine Gael to agree with him. Frances went for the same reason as Shatter. Nothing else.

Therefore, the realpolitik of An Tánaiste’s position isn’t whether or not he behaved badly, because he certainly did, but is it politically expedient to make him pay? That is a matter of political judgement and political gamesmanship, and entirely in the hands of certain of the parties in the Dáil. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

Fianna Fáil

It is surely Micheál Martin’s dearest wish that An Tánaiste had managed to hit a higher bar than that achieved by former Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen in attempting to weasel his way out of the mess. Sadly, he did not. The response from An Tánaiste on Saturday was watery in the extreme, and is worth nothing. There is no solace for Martin there. Therefore, he is hopeful for someone, somewhere, in the other parties to save him from having to make a potentially painful decision.

The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party want Varadkar gone, not least because they hate his guts. There was some quite bullish tweeting from Deputies O’Callaghan and MacSharry on Saturday, and from Senator Dooley. However, every time the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has been asked to stand up and be counted, they have run for the hills like spring lambs. It is difficult to believe this situation will be any different.

The Green Party

There exists a perpetual battle between the Green Party and the Labour Party to see who is the most virtuous of them all. This gets especially nasty when one or the other has taken the shilling and accepted a place in government. Each goes into government swearing that things will be different this time and each comes out battered and bruised, things having been exactly the same this time, actually.

Does Deputy Ryan have the stones to do a Ruairí Quinn and demand a head? If he does and gets the head, Deputy Ryan doesn’t get any gyp from the bolshy wing of his party from now until Christmas. If Deputy Ryan asked for a head and doesn’t get it, he can go to the country on the Ethics ticket. If he behaves as Deputy Hourigan seems to suspect he will, then his own head will soon be in a basket, beyond all shadow of a doubt. There’s only so much tree huggers can live with before they reach for their hatchets.

Fine Gael

The most delicious dilemma of them all. The fundamental question is this: do Fine Gael want to fight an election on whether or not their leader was right to leak a confidential document to his buddy when that document was considerably to his buddy’s material benefit? If they are, then Leo is going nowhere and he will dare either Deputy Martin or Deputy Ryan to oppose him. If they so dare, Deputy Varadkar then pulls the plug, the government collapses and either the President asks the parties to see if they can form another government without an election, or we all head for the polls.

Where this gets spicy is if there’s a majority of the Fine Gael party who do not want to fight an election on those terms. Pascal Donohue was on This Week on RTÉ Radio 1 defending An Tánaiste to the hilt, but of course Deputy Donohue was one of the first to back Leo for leader in the first place. There has been so statement at time of writing (Sunday night, about ten o’clock) from either Simon Coveney, Simon Harris or Helen McEntee, the contenders for the leadership should a vacancy arise. The longer there is no word from them, the more nervous Deputy Varadkar should get.

If Fine Gael turn against Varadkar, Micheál Martin’s problem is solved. Deputy Varadkar is duly defenestrated, a new leader of Fine Gael is elected and the government survives until Christmas, probably. If they don’t, then there are decisions to make. And the decisions will of course be influenced by Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party has the doubtful gift of sounding wonderful while in opposition. One imagines them parading through City Hall in their togas, such is the height of their rhetoric. They have been strangely silent so far on this issue, but Deputy Kelly has a combative personality. It’s hard to imagine him resisting going for a jugular.

But it’s going to take more than the Labour Party rattling their sabres to get the government’s attention should they decide to dig foxholes and wait out the shelling, because the Labour Party is not what you’d call numerous. Neither is it likely to be a substantial player in the formation of the next government. Unlike Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin

Is this Leo Varadkar affair a Rubicon for Sinn Féin? The argument for them sitting dumb on this is their own tremendous need to show themselves as an acceptable party of government, a responsible party of government. Responsible parties don’t collapse governments in the middle of pandemics just because someone was a bit indiscrete with confidential secrets while Taoiseach, do they? One sees the bigger picture.

However. Sinn Féin incredible result in the last election was because of a perception that Sinn Féin were not like the other parties. If they give Varadkar a pass on this, they are exactly like other parties – something that will be loudly noted by the entities further on Sinn Féin’s left, such as Deputies Murphy, Smyth and the rest. This is a nightmare for Sinn Féin. Deputies Murphy, Smyth and rest will never challenge Sinn Féin for a place in government but they can, and have, cost Sinn Féin seats that they can’t do without.

It is interesting also to note that, ever since Dr Holohan returned to head up NPHET and his letter advocating a Level-5 lockdown was leaked, Sinn Féin have been notably less strident in their criticism of the government. Could it be that the party has echoed St Augustine and prayed “Lord, let us govern, but not yet?” 

The War Game

As it is now, if I were Mary-Lou McDonald, I would table a motion of no confidence in the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Leo Varadkar and see who salutes. I can’t risk being outmanoeuvred on my left, and my luck will be out should this manoeuvring precipitate an election. But I cannot allow myself to be outmanoeuvred on my left, and this is a risk I must take if I am to win all.

Most of the rest of the Opposition would support  a motion of No Confidence in Leo, as they’re not likely to be all that fond of him either, and know a sacrifice will help keep the public calm. A Deputy McGrath or a Healy-Rae may go rogue, for divilment, but otherwise it’s the canny thing to do.

This then passes the hand grenade back to Fine Gael. If Fine Gael decide they don’t want to face the country defending Leo, then out the window he goes and the crisis is over. Alternatively, if Fine Gael decide Leo is the boy for good or for ill, then the hand grenade becomes two hand grenades, one of which falls into Deputy Ryan’s lap, and the other into An Taoiseach’s.

In the best case scenario, Both Deputies Martin and Ryan agree that Leo has got to go. It will make the election look more worthwhile, and may cause Fine Gael to recalibrate exactly how up for battle Fine Gael really are, realising the strength of Fianna Fáil and the Greens together is greater than the sum of their parts.

In the worst case scenario, Deputies Martin and Ryan defend Varadkar because they are scared, and this will surely seal their doom. Ryan’s certainly, because the Greens have proved more restive since this most peculiar of governments was formed.

If Martin could have Varadkar defenestrated it would be the best news he’s had in nine years, but again that is not in his control. That is entirely in the gift of Fine Gael, which paints a very vivid picture of just how far Fianna Fáil have fallen in ten years.


Somebody is losing a head over this. It’s just a question of who, and how many.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Working Man's Lament for the Pint of Stout

Joe Hill is one of the great folk/protest songs, and has been covered by the best folk/protest singers - Paul Robeson, Joan Baez, and Luke Kelly. As such, you're correspondent has decided to lift the tune and disgrace it, in order to bewail my own utterly selfish wants (that may, nonetheless, be shared by a good big slice of the population). All together now, here we go:


I dreamed I heard a pint of stout
hissing from the cask
Says I but stout, it's level five
And I can't drink you through my mask
I can't drink you through my mask

The pubs are closed, I said to stout
as the ghostly vision swayed
The only jars we see these days
Are full of marmalade
Are full of marmalade

The Palace Bar, and Mulligan's,
and all the pubs in Dublin town
Where porter flowed like mountain springs
Today are all shut down
Today are all shut down

I saw George Lee, on RTÉ,
Say we're locked down for the quarter
I damned his eyes, and cursed my fate,
and I dreamed once more of porter,
I dreamed once more of porter.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Irish Political Culture Is Ill-Suited to the Times

Leinster House

 It would be nice if the state were to take stock and reset some dials when the pandemic finally runs its course. The state is nearly one hundred years old. The circumstances that prevailed in 1922 do not prevail now. This is a different Ireland, and it needs a different regulatory structure.

The Irish Free State was born from an armed revolution that led to civil war. The traces of that violent birth remain in our institutions. The first governments of the Free State were about consolidating that state against enemies, to borrow a phrase from the USA, both foreign and domestic. Therefore, the balance tilted more towards the institution than the citizen whenever the interests of the two competed.

The state is now as stable as a state can be. The IRA are gone. The state is protected by the European Super State that is currently being born, and that European Super State may be a better bet than China for replacing the USA as the greatest power in the world in a generation or two.

As such, we should now be in a position of sufficient maturity to loosen some of the over-tight bonds, and in a position of sufficient wisdom born from experience, between the financial crash and the pandemic, to see the need for loosening those bonds.

Consider the case of judging the judges. Ireland’s laws regarding freedom of speech are highly restrictive. This restriction acts as a halter on the media’s ability to tell stories fully, which in turn comforts the strong and afflicts the weak.

We’ve seen it in the past fortnight concerning Golfgate and Mr Justice Wolfe. The current issue of The Phoenix details the twenty-year struggle to have a judicial council appointed, a twenty-year struggle that has yet to leave the starting gate. Not good enough.  This needs to be fixed as a matter of urgency.

Judicial accountability is just one of a number of major areas of Irish public life that are not scrutinised. The property market and the meat-factory industry are two obvious cases. The communal living scheme is eerily reminiscent of the boom in building two-bedroom apartments with parking for one car of the early 2000s. The two-bedroom apartment is the most profitable type of building for a developer. It is the least useful for families looking for homes. Are we going to make the same mistakes again? If not, what’s going to stop us?

As for the meat factories, the special treatment given to the cause of keeping schools open during the pandemic is certainly understandable, if perhaps not entirely wise. The special treatment afforded the meat factories makes no sense whatsoever. The special treatment is so odd that it resulted in Michael McDowell and Sinn Féin being on the same side of the argument, not something that occurs very often. What’s going on, and why is it going on? A deafening silence from Institutional Ireland.

One of the flaws in Irish political culture is the culture’s emphasis on politics and lack of emphasis on governance. As a people, we revel in stories about strokes and politicians slipping blades between each other’s ribs. Governance – whether the bins should be collected at the start or the end of a week; how best to distribute services, by geography or population; how best to distribute taxes; how best to educate children; how to deal with the left-behind – all these questions bore us rigid. Ireland expects somebody else to worry about that stuff. The part of democracy that demands the sovereign people take responsibility for these decisions is a penny that has yet to drop with the Irish nation.

Perhaps it will drop now. One of the effects of the pandemic is that the nation’s indifference to the spectacular levels of public-service waste is coming home to roost. Why does Ireland lack acute bed capacity? Because acute bed capacity has never been an issue in Irish politics. Every party throws money at the HSE and hopes a miracle will result. They are incapable of doing anything else. Utterly out of their depth.

When Norma Foley announced the balls-up in the Leaving Cert results, who was really surprised? We might not have said it aloud, but nobody really expected that automated system to work. The government got away with it by giving everyone whatever course they wanted. If that has negative consequences, they’ll happen on someone else’s watch, a double-result on any Irish politician’s scorecard.

The most important thing to take from all of this is that it’s not the politician’s fault. It’s out fault for electing them. These are not colonial governors sent from London. These are ourselves, doing things as we, the sovereign people, would have them done.

Therefore, the onus is on the people to change their taste in politics. Politics has to become boring, an accountants’ game of what did you say you’d do, what did you do, how much did it cost, why did it happen, why didn’t it happen and how much did it all cost? The electoral system will have to change too, as it’s inclined to prioritise local over national needs. This will reduce the fun of election counts, but reader, look on the bright side. Maybe you’ll be able to go for a pint again. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

Monday, September 28, 2020

In Opposition to Suicide, Assisted or Otherwise

Deputy Gino Kenny

Deputy Gino Kenny’s Dying with Dignity Bill is due to go before the Dáil this week. It should be opposed for two reasons – the floodgate effect, and what such a bill says about the very nature of life itself.

The Floodgate Effect

Most conservative objections to liberal social legislation are based on floodgate effects. This is because all legislation has a floodgate effect. If it didn’t, what would be the point of it?

The Dying with Dignity Bill contains a number of provisions to limit this floodgate effect. A “qualifying person” must be diagnosed as suffering from a terminal disease with no hope of a cure by two separate medical professionals. There must be a treatment paper trail. A qualifying person must be judged mentally capable of making the decision to die. There will be provision made for conscientious objection by medical professionals. And so on.

Immense cultural taboos towards taking life before its natural end currently exist. For all the horrors of death – and they are many – very few people step forward to put a pillow on the face of the dying and hurry things along.

We all tell each other how we’ll eat a bullet before suffering the indignity of being a bedridden, senile incontinent in a nursing home. Everyone nods their head when that comes up in discussion. And yet the western world has this year shut itself down to protect the lives, among others, of those same bedridden, senile incontinents. Isn’t there a certain inconsistency in that? Are we really sure we know what we’re doing here?

If this bill, or a bill like it, were passed and a similar pandemic were to arrive a generation or two later, there wouldn’t be any debate at all about what to do with the nursing homes. Once the taboo is broken and the years go by, the constraints are lifted, one by one, because their original impulse, the deep-seated taboo, no long exists.

Succeeding generations will be puzzled to know what all these obstacles are doing in what should have been perfectly straight-forward legislation. Look at this ridiculous two-doctor rule. If I need a tooth pulled, I don’t know two dentists to tell me, do I? What about the qualified person being in full awareness of the decision? For goodness sake, surely if you’ve lost your marbles, you’re more or less dead already, aren’t you? What were these people thinking in 2020?

The Fundamental Irrationality of Life

The current age – which has been the current age since Pierre Beaumarchais staged the Marriage of Figaro at the Comédie-Française in Paris in 1778, for what that’s worth – sees itself as the age of science. There are no ghosts in the machine. There is, and there ain’t. With apologies to Wittgenstein, what is, is, and what ain’t, ain’t. It is unfortunate to take so unsubtle a position with regard to so messy a proposition as life, and society, and humanity. It can lead down strange paths.

Some of the great scientific minds of the first half of the Twentieth Century were eugenicists. Two of the founding fathers of modern statistics, Sir Francis Galton and Sir Ronald Fisher, were eugenicists. They had read their Darwin (Galton and Darwin were related) and done their sums. What was the point in human progress being held back by, to borrow a phrase from a movie, too many goofy bastards in the herd?

The eugenics movement never recovered from the Allies’ entry into the Ohrdruf concentration camp in April 6th, 1945. It’s one thing to talk about eugenics and tidying up the race while enjoying a glass of port after a five-course dinner. It’s quite another to see that race-tidying process industrialised as the Germans, that nation of engineers, had done.

Science favours controlled breeding. How could it not? There are no rational arguments against it. Only the sentimental. And yet it is sentiment that makes us human in the first place, is it not? Just how rational is the human animal anyway?

Our only certainty in life is death. Whoever you are, where-ever you are, whether you are a man or a woman, rich or poor, tall or short, you will die. It’s only a question of when.

What, then, is the point of living? What is the point in knowing that all you have will be left behind you, in knowing that every day brings the end closer, that every day after your peak you have declined by that little bit more, until that poor bastard in the nursing home wearing the diaper is your own sweet self? The very act of living exists in defiance of rationality itself.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to get dead. People die all the time. They’re here, and then they’re not, and they are never coming back, ever, not even for a glimpse on the side of a hill in the distance. Gone.

And yet, for reasons that are not rational, that do not balance on both sides of the equation, people fight for life with tooth and claw. All the damned in the war zones of the world, in Yemen, in Syria, in South Sudan – why do they cling to life as they do? Where is the kindness in allowing them to suffer so when their end is inevitable? Wouldn’t it be kinder for the West to come along and assist them into the Undiscovered Country?

Cultural taboos are to the social sciences what Schrödinger's cat is to physics. All very explicable in theory but when you go looking for the actual thing itself it proves very damned hard to pin down. Physicists have been searching for that damn cat for ninety-five years, and have yet to find a single whisker. We change what we do not understand at our absolute peril.

FOCAL SCOIR. Some people do not need assistance to commit suicide. Some people are every day aware that the means of their escape is in their own hands. The big thing to remember here, and the point I think that’s being missed by this bill, is that suicide only looks like an escape. It’s not really. An exit door is only ever an exit door. It’s always better to stay in the ring, because it can’t rain every day. It just can’t. If life is hanging heavy with you these days, it’s no harm to give the Samaritans ( a shout. You can call them at 116 123 twenty-four hours a day, whenever suits. They’d love to hear from you.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The World Will Not End if the Greens Vote No

It would be an exaggeration to describe the current state of Irish politics as being like three-dimensional chess. However, there can be no doubt that acey-deucey it ain’t. There are many balls in the air at the moment, and how they fall, and in what order, will determine what happens next.

This isn’t a fault in the system. If anything, it’s a good thing. It means that our politics is transitioning from the civil war structure that’s existed since the foundation of the state to whatever exactly it is that’s going to replace it. And while all this is going on, a government still has to be formed, taxes have levied, bills have to be passed, debts have to be paid – all the everyday housekeeping of politics.

Right now the formation of the next government hinges on the thoughts of the two-and-a-half to three thousand members of the Green Party, north and south of the border. The current dynamics within the Green Party are fascinating and complex, as outlined in the diagram.

Are the Greens an environment first, socially progressive second party, or a socially progressive first, environmental second party? Are they more pressure group than political party? What are we to made of the people who negotiated the deal voting against it, or the remarkable intervention of the Northern Green leader, Claire Bailey, MLA, yesterday?

Each of those alone is worth a solid thousand words. But the particular point of interest this morning is: what happens if the membership shoot the deal down on Friday? What then?

On the face of it, the Greens are conducting a remarkable experiment in popular democracy, and are being thanked very little for it. The Greens’ membership ballot on the program for government is utterly orthogonal to Irish political history and tradition.

Micheál Martin made a big deal of listening to grass roots when he became leader of Fianna Fáil, and has made a point of ignoring them in the nine years since. Fine Gael, bless them, never even bothered to pretend. The party that likes to tell the country what’s good for it also likes to tell its own members what’s good for them.

The question for the Greens is if this popular democracy renders the party incapable of practical action. In a nice piece of modularity, this is the Greens’ political dilemma too – does their commitment to Green issues mean that just can’t function in a country where people travel by car and burn turf and raise cattle?

If the Greens were a normal political party, the anti-deal positions of Claire Bailey and Francis Noel Duffy and Neasa Hourigan and the rest would be just so much theatre, like Ringer fulminating over Fianna Fáil perfidy at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. These being the Greens though, they might put their money where their mouths are, and the system isn’t built for shocks like that.

Pat Leahy wrote a remarkable column in the Irish Times on Saturday, outlining the land of milk and honey that awaits the Greens if they pass the deal, and the barren and empty wastes that await them should they be so foolish as to refuse to eat their sprouts.

Coincidentally, this analysis is also the analysis of the Fine Gael party, who would see the Green’s failure to pass the deal as proof that all avenues have been exhausted, leaving An Taoiseach no option but to call another election.

Francis Noel Duffy told Gavan Reilly on Reilly’s On the Record radio show that he doesn’t see a second election as being inevitable at all. There are other combinations of parties available, many of which did better at the polls than either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and are more ideologically suited to Green issues than Fine Gael in particular. If this deal is voted down, perhaps the President would ask the leaders of those parties to see if they could somehow form a government before admitting defeat and returning to the people?

One of Leahy’s pro-deal arguments is that if a second election were held, the Greens would be mashed by Sinn Féin. It’s not clear why this would be the case. Their bases are different and, while Fine Gael would damn the Greens as putting squirrels before people, the Greens can counter that if a party doesn’t have principles it has nothing. That’s an argument with a strong appeal. Also, the Greens would go into the election with a higher profile than they had in February and in a position to get some of that huge left-wing vote that went to Sinn Féin last time out, to say nothing of the Fianna Fáil carcass from which all parties and none will feast.

In point of fact, the Greens and Sinn Féin could form a transfer pact for a second election - "you voted for a left-wing government, but they wouldn’t let you have one. Vote for us now, and you won’t be denied this time. Transfer Left!" Pigeons, meet cat.

Your correspondent is not a member of the Green Party and has no vote on the program for government. However, If I did have a vote, I would vote against the deal. Not because I don’t think it’s green enough or because it doesn’t tick enough social justice boxes; the uncosted program for government is built on sand anyway, and what’s in it won’t matter a damn once the recession hits.

I would vote no because I don’t care for being threatened with terrible and immediate war should I vote in a way that doesn’t suit some people. Bullies have to be stood up to where-ever they are met.

The world will not end if the Greens vote no; it won’t be like a new Covid strain sweeping in from the East, or a no-deal Brexit, or a foot-and-mouth outbreak, or famine or penal laws or the return of Cromwell. It’ll be just a question of politicians sitting around a table and cutting another deal, like politicians are meant to do. Roll on Judgement Day.

Monday, June 08, 2020

On Trust in the Media

Sarah McInerney, talented columnist and rising RTÉ star, uncharacteristically missed an open goal in her column in yesterday’s Sunday Times. “Forgotten people fired up by out-of-touch press” was the headline on the column, and it seemed that McInerney was about to do what the Irish media are generally loathe to do, which is turn the spotlight on themselves.

Ireland is a very small country and, in a small field like journalism, you have to be careful about whose toes you tread on. This was always true, but it’s especially true now, as the media struggles for existence in the face of the all-conquering World Wide Web.

McInerney’s piece opens by remarking on US riot police shooting at journalists and then draws closer to home by writing of former journalist Boris Johnson’s disdain for a free press in what was once Great Britain. She wrote of the current President of the United States’s often-repeated assertion that the press is out of touch, and went on to examine if that is true in the Irish context. And here, sadly, Aughrim was lost.

McInerney cites two examples of the Irish media being out of touch. The first is the public anger at water charges bubbling over in 2014, which McInerney writes was not covered by the media because they were unaware of it, and the second is a list of influential Irish media people on Twitter that was published last week, of which McInerney notes 75% are white men.

Water charges. A Google Trends search for “water charges” in Ireland, from 2004 to yesterday, can be broken down geographically. This is what it looks like.

So we can see that water charges were very dear to the hearts of people in Lucan, Dublin, Limerick and Cork. The rest of country - meh.

By means of geographical comparison, we can do a search for “rugby”.

Everybody in Ireland is interested in rugby, and this interest peaks every four years, in keeping with the cycles of the Rugby World Cup. The rugby team gets the nation’s attention.

And finally, again for comparison, a search for hurling:

The hurling search is interesting for the absence of Dublin in first place. First place in the hurling searches is Thurles, County Tipperary. Dublin, despite its demographic advantage, is back in the chasing pack.

The point of all this is: water charges have been a huge issue in Lucan since Joe Higgins was elected in 1997, and a big issue in Dublin over the same time. Outside of those areas, nobody gives a toss about water charges.

Therefore, in identifying water charges as a hidden issue for the Irish nation, McInerney herself commits the sin she is here to condemn – not knowing the concerns of the people.

The influential journalist list is a bottle of smoke. It’s a good idea with any survey of this kind to consider how the runners and riders are scored. What is the fundamental unit of influence? If distance is measured in metres and volume in litres, what is influence measured in? The gasbag, perhaps? Does this gasbag unit increase in a linear, logarithmic, or exponential fashion? A brief glance at that influencer lists suggests this list was very useful in gaining its publisher publicity, and in no way otherwise was it of any merit. So that’s two swings, two misses for McInerney.

In his famous essay about the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe wrote often about the need for journalists to leave the newsroom and go out and meet actual people, to ask them about their lives and then return and type it all up. To what extent does the Irish media do that? To what extent do the journalists pound the streets and listen to the people?

For instance: it is a truism in Irish politics that blow-ins do not, and can not, get elected. What, then made the good people of Clare give Violet Anne Wynne 8,987 first-preference votes and a seat in Dáil Éireann?

For another instance: the heartbroken Kate O’Connell was a guest on Brendan O’Connor’s radio show after losing her seat in the election in February. O’Connell spoke of the reception she got on the doors during the campaign. It was terrible, she said. Nobody was interested in what Fine Gael had to say; as far as the honest burghers of Dublin Bay South were concerned, things could not get worse.

Now. If Dublin Bay South isn’t the most affluent constituency in Ireland it’s certainly worthy of a podium finish. And yet its electorate seem to think they’re in Stalingrad in 1943, eating their boots and waiting on the German bombs. Why? How could so affluent, so advantaged, so privileged an electorate think that? How are they so distanced from reality? And don’t tell me about Ringsend being in the constituency – Kate O’Connell no more visited Ringsend during the campaign than she visited Mars, the red planet.

For a third instance: one gets elected in Ireland by going on the stump. The personal touch. People like to see "himself". Funeral attendances win votes. How, then, could Patricia Ryan win 10,155 votes in Kildare South having gone on her holidays during the actual campaign? Feeding five thousand with two loaves and five fishes is run of the mill compared to this achievement. How did it happen?

If we are to have a native media, reporting and chronicling news and events relevant to Ireland, seen from an Irish perspective, these are the issues that should – that must – be reported on. That they’re not being reported on suggests an extraordinary systems-failure in the media itself, one that one billion tweets urging the little people to #buyapaper is unlikely to turn around.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

On the Matter of Government Formation

Deputy Micheál Martin told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show of May 22nd that he expected the government to finally be formed by the end of this week. Not for the first time, the unhappy Deputy Martin appears to have missed the mark. The government is no nearer to being formed now than it was the day after the election, and the thoughtful citizen could do worse than to ponder why that may be.

The election will be 118 days in the past come Friday. Covid-19 or no, it’s ridiculous to suggest that all this time is being spent in negotiations to a common end. That process doesn’t take one hundred days. We do not know what is going on in those once smoke-filled rooms, and the political correspondents seem far too polite to ask, but negotiations are not going on. They cannot be going on if they’re taking over one hundred days to happen.

Your correspondent relies on the Irish Times, the Sunday Times, the Irish Examiner and The Phoenix magazine for his information. Close reading of all of the above suggests that the 33rd Dáil will never elect a Taoiseach; that the acting Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, will ask the President for a dissolution of this Dáil and another general election; and that all this will happen before the summer recess, rather than after.

The Phoenix has been forthright in its contention that Fine Gael are only interested in stringing out the talks. This certainly makes sense from Fine Gael’s point of view. Having first wanted to retire to their country homes with their football clutched tightly under their arm, the party now feels that the country finally understands how lucky it is to have them, and will be grateful to them over how steadily they have steered the ship of state through these terrible pandemic waters.

Fianna Fáil, the party that dominated politics in the state from 1932 to 2011, are dead, gone, kaput, over. If there were any sign of life in the party, Deputy Martin would have been defenestrated months ago. Fianna Fáil cannot face into another election with Micheál Martin’s face on the poster, and it looks like that’s exactly what they’re going to do. The soldiers of destiny are marching towards the Somme and oblivion.

Which brings us to the third hand in the reel, the Greens. Their has been general dismay among the commentariat over the Greens’ decision to heave their leader during these times of talks. It’s actually the best thing the Greens have already done and, like Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, it’s also the heralding of a new force to be reckoned with.

“Senior hurling” is the phrase most associated with the Green Party in terms of national politics, as in the Greens not being ready for senior hurling. The Greens are ready for it now, or at least, their leader-elect, Deputy Catherine Martin, is.

Fianna Fáil can look to Deputy Martin and weep. Martin, from the so-called Fianna Fáil gene pool, is doing what nobody in Fianna Fáil has either the talent, the will or the guts to do. She’s going to the back field with Old Shep, a shotgun, and a spade, and knows she’ll be coming back with only two of them.
Eamon Ryan, like Micheál Martin, is a dead man walking. It is impossible to conceive that Catherine Martin has not counted heads before allowing this happen, and there is no hope for Eamon Ryan. The future is already here.

Part of the shock among the commentariat seems to be over the fact that Eamon Ryan, like the Baroness in The Sound of Music, is getting the chop without ever having done anything wrong. Welcome to senior hurling, Deputy Ryan. Deserve has nothing to do with it. Gratitude has nothing to do with it. It’s all about want, want, want, and right now nobody wants it more than Catherine Martin.

The Irish Times ran a story on Saturday quoting anonymous sources on their impressions of the various participants in the talks. There was a description of Catherine Martin that is particularly worth noting. While Deputy Niamh Hourigan is voluble on the Greens’ different causes, Deputy Martin, according to the source, “sits there like a Sphinx.”

Have you been in many meetings, Reader? Trust your correspondent on this one; it’s the person who isn’t talking in the meeting that’s holding all the aces. Some lemon in the Green Party – they haven’t gone away, you know – disputed this characterisation of Martin as unfair. Reader, it was the height of praise.

So there we have the participants at the talks. Fine Gael, biding their time; Fianna Fáil, playing Weekend at Bernie’s, and the Greens, playing the long game. That dynamic would struggle to organise a bus to Leopardstown for an evening’s racing – if there were any racing, dammit. There’s no way it’s forming a government.

So the talks will break down, as they must. The Greens will go to the country under Catherine Martin, as Eamon Ryan may do a Sidney Dalton and go before he’s pushed. The Greens’ vote will improve under its marvellously-gifted new leader, with both the parties’ cores – the Range-Rover drivers of South Dublin, the donkey aters of the wild Atlantic way – both seeing themselves reflected in the new leader, and all parties and none outside those cores recognising in Martin someone with whom they can do business.

Sinn Féin will again make hay on their populist platform, a platform that Micheál Martin could have destroyed by simply talking to them, but whose effective ostracisation will simply have glamorised Sinn Féin further. Candidate selection will be the big challenge for Sinn Féin – getting enough to stand in the first place, and maybe sidelining a few of those loose cannons the last election turned up. If anybody should know how to bury a loose cannon, the Shinners should.

The Greens and Shinners will both feast on the FF carcass, and maybe Fine Gael will pick up a few seats as well. It’s possible the next government will be a Green / Sinn Féin coalition, with the Greens acting as a check on the hammer of Deputy Ó Broin and the sickle of Deputy O’Reilly.

It’s possible that the shocking nature of that new government, the first 21st-Century government of Ireland in its way, may be able to make the radical reforms the country needs. It’s possible, but not likely. The inertia of the vested interests will be too strong. The IMF will be back; it’s only a question of when. The hope here is that Irish politics will have matured sufficiently when the IMF do return to realise that electing the other civil war party is not real reform and the only way to judge a government is on how well it balances its books. It would be a shame to waste yet another crisis.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Normal People is a Rotten Novel

Some "normal people", apparently.
The TV adaptation of Normal People, the phenomenally successful second novel by Irish author Sally Rooney, runs to twelve episodes. This is the latest news to stagger your faithful correspondent, for whom the success of Normal People exists at a similar level of bafflement as the placement of the figs in the fig rolls.

Normal People is a superficial, shallow, vain, vacuous, mutton-headed book about the first-world problems of a poor little rich girl. The characterisation would bring a blush to cardboard, the human insight is blind, the subtly is that of a cavity block and, if Sally Rooney’s really is the voice of a generation, that generation is an unusually stupid one.

Novels are written in three broad styles. These aren’t hard and fast guidelines, of course, more like familial resemblances than any scientifically rigorous classification, but useful for aiding our understanding and comparing our experiences.

The first family is the traditional story. There is a protagonist who does things, and these things are described in the course of the book. These books are generally set in a world that is real and recognisable. Emile Zola is typicalof this school. He thought it the novelist’s duty to go out in the world, and then report on what he or she saw there.

The second style is the window-on-the-soul school, of which Henry James may be considered the trailblazer. Acolytes consider such things as plots and story arcs passé and, for some reason, particularly prize the composition of the sentences in a novel, which are, ideally, exquisite. Colm Tóibín would be a leading member of this school.

The third style is avant garde, where the writer writes utter gibberish that can be understood by neither man nor beast, but we all pretend that they’re capital-P-Profound because we don’t want to look thick. Thomas Pynchon is the pope of this church, and Gravity’s Rainbow its sacred text.

To which school does Sally Rooney belong? Well. That’s hard to say.

Normal People is set in contemporary Ireland, rural Sligo and Dublin. Neither place is recognisable in the novel. A quick example: early in the book, the hero, Connell, is having an argument with his mother, Lorraine. Lorraine is so annoyed with Connell that she tells him to stop the car, she’s going to get out and get the bus home.

It is to be hoped that Lorraine packed a lunch, because she could be waiting a long time on that bus if she’s living in a small town in Sligo. I’m not sure how many rural Irish towns have public transport, but if there were any such towns in Sligo I feel I would have heard.

The book is full of these chasms in reality. Marianne, the book’s heroine, goes from social isolation at school to being the It-Girl amongst the freshers in college. That doesn’t happen. It takes time to learn social skills. You can’t just put them on like a hat.

Connell is from a working class background. He also has his own car and can afford to go back-packing in Italy while in college. Who pays that bill? Connell is embarrassed to tell his mother that he voted for Declan Bree, the venerable Sligo socialist. Lorraine voted for Bree as well – she’s a big fan, and has educated Connell about “Cuba and the cause of Palestinian liberation.” Why would Connell be embarrassed to agree with his mother? It doesn’t make any sense. Connell is appalled when a female teacher makes an advance on him in a nightclub. Come on, now. On what planet does that happen?

Only one part of Normal People feels real, and that’s in Italy, where Marianne is entertaining her college set and the back-packing Connell in her father’s villa. Marianne’s horrible college boyfriend Jamie – a pantomime villan, if ever there were one – gets snotty when the champagne is not served in flute glasses. Marianne points out that these are champagne coupes, *actually*, but the damage is done. We’re drinking out of gravy boats, sneers Jamie, and he means it to sting.

That part reads like an eye-witness account. That exchange was only part of the novel in which your correspondent was able to believe could have happened. The rest is narcissistic, pseudo-intellectual rubbish and how in God’s holy name the makers of the TV show have got twelve episodes out of it is baffling.

They’ve either stuffed it like a sausage with whatever offcuts or offal or dog or cat they could lay hands on, or else they’ve stretched it out, like someone buttering the bread for the harvest festival in the Presbyterian Hall. James Marriott wrote in The Times that he “finished the book determined to look at the world differently. I’m not sure what higher compliment you can pay a novel.” Sooner you than me, hoss.

FOCAL SCOIR: The New York Times previewed the TV show last week as “a rare TV show about teenagers that respects intimacy as a powerful storytelling tool, both on and off camera,” and praised the show for hiring an “intimacy co-ordinator.” Thank goodness the intimacy co-ordinator never went to so far as to suggest that the actress who portrays Marianne keep her clothes on. Nobody would have known where to look.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Half-a-Million Voters Have the Right to be Represented

Sinn Féin TDs: Children of a Lesser God?
There is a strange unanimity current in Irish political media at the moment. Unanimity would be odd at the best of times; these are not the best of times. Nevertheless, an accepted wisdom has developed, and this accepted wisdom can be summed up in four points.

First, the next government will a coalition dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Second, there is no possible alternative to this arrangement. Third, it is the patriotic duty of certain smaller parties in the Dáil to make up the numbers in this coalition, and finally, there’s nothing very, very odd about points one to three as outlined.

The absence of any “now, wait a minute” impulse in all this is surprising. For instance, Pat Leahy of the Irish Times has written about the gulf in understanding between what the politicians thought the last election was about and what the people thought the last election was about. The politicians thought the election would be dominated by Brexit, and how things would break between Fine Gael’s expert handing of these delicate tripartite negotiations between Ireland, Britain and the EU, or else Fianna Fáil’s nobility and patriotism in giving Fine Gael a free hand to do what needed to be done.

The people, in their ingratitude, insisted on making the election about housing and health, subjects that were that much more real to the people’s own day-to-day lives and experiences.

The election was a reality-check for political consensus. Why, then, is it business as usual for the political establishment? Why isn't so shocking a result having a tangible effect in terms of governance?

One of the more thoughtful pro-Brexit arguments among our neighbours was the idea that, be it for good or for ill, the people had spoken. You may not like what they said, or you may be horrified by what they had said, but that they had spoken could not be denied. If Britain were a democracy, then politicians had no option but to accept the expressed will of the people.

There are not many buyers for that notion of accepting the expressed will of the people in - hateful phrase! - Official Ireland. Half a million citizens voted Sinn Féin in the general election. Where are those voices finding expression currently? Where is the pundit telling a Prime Time presenter that there is something wrong in the denial of that mandate? Where are the articles speaking for those half-million?

There are complexities to the situation. Governments are formed by seat-counts, rather than vote-counts, and if Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates to maximise their incredible vote, that is Sinn Féin’s problem and not anyone else’s. Of course this is true. But it doesn’t explain why Fianna Fáil’s 37 seats – not counting the Ceann Comhairle – count and Sinn Féin’s 37 seats do not, or why Fine Gael’s 35 seats count, and Sinn Féin’s do not.

The political commentary is reminiscent of the late Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev John Charles McQuaid, preaching that nothing had changed after Vatican II. The 2020 general election voting was so revolutionary that the political correspondents are struggling to process it, and are trying to deal with it by pretending it never happened at all.

This is very dangerous thinking. If the election has been rendered null and void by COVID-19 fair enough; let’s have another election, and settle it that way. What’s completely out of the question is this ideas of ignoring the result of the election entirely. Ignoring the result of the election is a sure-fire confirmation that some people’s worst suspicions about the state are true.

Specifically, the suspicion that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, that there is a permanent government that doesn’t change, and that permanent government is run by faceless figures who are members of clubs to which you can never belong.

There was one particular factor in the last election that should have made all psephologists sit up and take notice. All through the history of the state, the Irish electorate has placed personality above politics. The Irish electorate votes locally first, nationally second. That’s why politicians attend so many funerals. If they don’t attend funerals, people won’t get to know them, and if they’re not known, they won’t get elected.

That went out of the window in the 2020 election. Sinn Féin had a TD elected in Kildare who went on her holidays instead of canvassing. Sinn Féin did not just get a blown-in elected in Clare, but a candidate who had blown in from Dublin. Dublin!

And these patterns repeated across the country. It’s all very well for pol corrs to be briefed by special advisors with stories about Shinners with British scalps around their tummy and pockets full of stolen money over big plates of Comeragh Hill lamb, spring vegetables and beautiful barley marjoram sauce. But it's too late to go bitching about the Shinners now.

Those Sinn Féin votes were cast all across the country, north, south, east and west, by rich people and poor people, by country people and townies, by people with nothing in common except a feeling that something has very wrong in a country where you obey all the rules and can’t afford a house for you and your family.

Politics is a contact sport and high-mindedness is a poor shield, but good God, how can so seismic a mandate be ignored? It is natural that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would seek to conserve their power – even if it is a little disappointing that there isn’t even some slight acknowledgement of how things have changed – but for the press, whose job it is to hold these jokers to account, to normalize Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael marginalizing of Sinn Féin’s democratically-expressed mandate is noticeably pathetic.

What should be particularly worrying is the question of how the half-million who voted for Sinn Féin will take the ignoring of their expressed wish and the confirmation of their worst fears. The guess here is: badly. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind, and we might all be destroyed in the coming storm.

Monday, April 06, 2020

On the Current Dáil Arithmetic

Buddy Movie Government
The Irish Times reported on Saturday that national peril sees the two great houses of Irish politics prepared from ancient grudge to break new unity in order to gift the country with the government it so richly deserves. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are on the verge of agreeing a program for government. What was not reported was the difference this makes as regards the current Dáil arithmetic.

The awkward reality is that it makes no difference at all. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can agree on a program for government down to the last jot and they would still be eight votes short of a majority. And the nature of a majority is that you either have it or you don’t. On or off, one or zero. There are no in-betweens. There are no almosts, but not quites. You are there, or you ain’t.

Both parties are furiously briefing currently that if only those damned Greens would get with the program and do what they’re damn-well told the country would finally have a government to tackle the three-headed monster of Covid-19, Brexit negotiations and the EU’s upcoming revision of member-state corporation tax policy.

There is an implicit understanding in this story that the smaller parties should bow to the larger for that reason – that they are small and the larger parties are large. However, the last government saw power handed to Shane Ross and Katherine Zappone that was out of proportion to their parliamentary representation, and what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The Green Party – because things do hinge on the Green Party, currently – realise that to hold the balance of power is to hold all the power, and they are correct in that assessment.

There is a thought experiment in the new maths of Game Theory that illustrates this quite well. Suppose a genie pops from a bottle and tells you that you can have one million dollars if and only if your buddy Frankie says it’s OK. How much of the million dollars do you have to give Frankie to get him onside?

Some people think a few grand will do Frankie just fine. He’s going from zero dollars to a few grand, the price of a new Beamer, maybe – what’s not to like? It’s not like your own soon-to-be great wealth is any skin off Frankie’s nose.

But this is incorrect. Frankie is in exactly the same position as you are, even though the money is offered to you alone. The offer to you does not reflect the true state of things – without Frankie’s participation, there is no money.

The offer appears to be made to you alone, but that appearance is not the reality. You alone do not have the power to make the offer come true. Therefore, Frankie must get half of the money because without Frankie, there is no money at all. And once that penny drops for Frankie, he’s damned if he’s settling for one penny less.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are in the position of the person who thinks she’s been offered a million dollars. She thinks it’s hers, but it’s not. The prize is only there if another party gives its permission. No permission, no nothing. Zero. Zip. The null set. The what-is-not.

Are the Greens correct to hold this position? Of course they are. Everyone in the Dáil can hold any position they like and, God help us, some of them actually do.

In what way is the Greens’ position – which is, if I understand it correctly, that a government of national unity has to be formed to get us through the current crisis and then another election held as soon as it’s feasible – less reasonable than that of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in their refusal to countenance anything to do with Sinn Féin? The teasing out of that question is what will decide the formation of the next government. Provided there’s a country left to govern, of course.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

What Are, Aren't, and Should Be Major Issues in the Election

Saturday will be, we are told, a "change" election, after which things will never be the same again. This is not the country’s first "change" election. The post-bailout 2011 election was a change election. So was the 1997 Deep Bertie election, and the Spring Tide election of 1992, and the Rise of the PDs in 1987. We could go on back to the 1920s, always finding the repeating pattern of things changing in order that they may remain the same, like in that Italian novel.

The PDs won fourteen seats in 1987. The Labour Party won more than twice as many in 1992. Those are historical elections now; is it possible that it is the children of those who voted PD in 1987 and Labour in 1992 who are now going to vote Green and/or Sinn Féin?

For a country that so enjoys an election, we seem unusually poor at documenting and/or analysing our politics. Why have we had so many change elections in the past thirty years?

Some people are claiming that that the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duopoly is finally over. They said that in 1987 too. Like the life of novelist Mark Twain or the fate of the Irish language, reports of the duopoly’s demise have been premature before.

Why, though? Why is that? Why are there these sudden lurches among the electorate, from the right-wing PDs to the softish-left social democrats of Labour to the – to borrow a phrase from Seán Lemass about the origins of his own party – slightly-constitutional Shinners?

Don’t forget, there is nobody more surprised at this Shinner surge – if it is a surge, and not another false dawn – than the Shinners themselves. Up until ten days ago, Sinn Féin were about consolidating the seats they hold, and trying to shore up leaks. Now they’re getting their ears boxed in the media for not running enough candidates, when one month ago it looked like they might be running too many.

It’s a cliche of politics to talk about a gap between the elected and the elected, between the people and the elite. But my goodness, we had a Dáil declaring a climate emergency at the same time as rural Ireland was getting ready to picket meat factories and hold up traffic in Dublin over the destruction of a way of life that some feel the Green Party are only interesting in accelerating.

There used to be a tradition of match-making in Ireland. Were any matched couples such strangers to each other as the current elected and the current electorate?

What even is it that we do when do we go to vote? It’s not something that we really document. The weight of scholarly work on Irish politics seems to have been a series of laments and jeremiads about how awful it was that Irish politics did not operate along a left-right divide, thus shaming Irish academics when they attended conferences (in such socialist states as East Germany, Cuba and the USSR, funnily enough). Would it not have made more sense to document politics as they were, rather than as academics would have had them be?

Are we better at understanding Irish politics now, or worse? Where is the great study, for instance, in the rise of the Independents in recent years? Nineteen independents were elected to the 32nd Dáil. There’s a good chance that number will be higher after Saturday and whenever the Tipperary election is finally held.

What does a vote for an independent say about that independent’s voters’ views on how the country should be governed? Why does a TD who was voted unfit for office by his fellow parliamentarians continue to top the poll in his own constituency?

Whose job is it to tease these issues out? It is the media’s job to tease these issues out. Why don’t the media tease these issues out? The media defence is that these issues are not teased out because the public isn’t interested in teasing them out – that the public likes sausages but cares little about how sausages are made.

To which there are two responses. The first is that distinguishing between the public interest and what the public is interested in is meant to be a cardinal concern of a responsible media, not least when the primary media outlet, RTÉ, is a public-service broadcaster.

The other response is that the media has no problem in the world in featuring issues about which the public could care less, the recent climate emergency business being a case in point. Which is more important? Why not devote even half of the resources devoted to climate issues to electoral reform issues? It doesn’t make sense.

And here’s what makes least sense of all. This is another change election. The most seismic election in the history of this, or any other, state was in 2011.

Fianna Fáil, the party that ruled the state from three of every four years of the state’s existence, went from seventy-one seats to twenty as an outraged and furious electorate blamed them for everything that had gone wrong in the country since the 2008 global financial crash.

And now, nine years later, Fianna Fáil will be back in power. They won’t have seventy-one seats, but they look good for sixty, give or take. How has that happened? Was the crash as bad as it was made out to be? If it wasn’t, why did the people get the impression that it was?

Either the media made fools of themselves by saying the crash was going to be far worse than it was, or else Ireland, that dear little island of green, has pulled off a bigger economic miracle than West Germany pulled off in the 1950s. Which is it? How did it happen? Who is to praise? Who is to blame? And where do I go to read about it?

You may think the answers to these questions – just how bad was the crash? How did we recover? Have we recovered at all, or are we simply on the batter again and there’s an even worse hangover waiting around the turn? - would be front and centre in the election campaign, with politicians and pundits making cases pro and con different interpretations of recent history.

You would be wrong. These have not been issues in the campaign. At all. And it’s going to be change elections all the way to the horizon and the nation going around in ever-decreasing circles until we start asking ourselves these questions, and paying attention to the answers.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

The Year in Sports

Shane Lowry was, naturally, a popular choice for RTÉ’s Sports Personality of the Year. The nation sees itself in Lowry – smashing them off the tee, showing nerves of ice on the green, and lorrying porter on the 19th. Fine girl you are.

He wasn’t the right choice though. The Sports Personality of the Year Award should have gone to Stephen Cluxton, goalkeeper of the Dublin football team that won an unprecedented five All-Ireland titles in a row.

That there wasn’t more talk of it is a reflection of Lowry’s popularity, and the fact that Lowry’s own GAA-credentials are first class. But it was still the wrong decision.

If not naming Cluxton footballer of the year earlier, or not naming him as the All-Star goalkeeper earlier, were scandalous, then how much more scandalous was the lack of acknowledgement of the great gouges in the history books with which Dublin have carved their names? And how often can it be that one team can be summed up in one player, a rock on which all subsequent edifices are built?
And how often do we see a player absolutely redefine the very concept of his position, as Cluxton has done?

There are two arguments contra Cluxton. The first is that Sports Personality of the Year is an annual award, rather than a body-of-work award. The second is that Lowry’s achievement in winning the British Open was greater than Cluxton’s in winning five All-Ireland titles in a row.

The first argument is bogus, because annual awards are about bodies of work as much as they’re about any particular year. Did Paul Newman win an Oscar for The Color of Money because Color of Money a better film than The Hustler, say, or because Newman acted better in The Color of Money than in The Hustler? Was John Wayne really better in True Grit than he was in The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Come on, now.

We’re on trickier ground when we come to comparing sports, of course. Lowry is the third Irishman to win the British Open. Five straight All-Irelands have never been won before, and there were some pretty good teams that won four. Five was beyond all of them.

And then the third and, for your correspondent, clinching argument. This year is the 35th running of the RTÉ Sports Personality of the Year. Lowry is the ninth golfer to win it. No Gaelic footballer has ever won it. Bejabbers, but the nation must be fierce gone on the golf all the same.

And speaking of rugby, there was some harrumphing about no rugby player having been nominated for that Sports Personality list this year, harrumphing that was easily silenced by asking who, exactly, had covered himself in glory in the year gone by.

Rugby is in a strange place right now. If, as its critics would argue, every game outside of a World Cup match is a friendly, then international rugby becomes the Brigadoon of sports, rising from the mist only every now and again. And the worst thing for rugby is that scheduling is the least of its worries.

Nearly a quarter-century from the advent of professionalism, the new reality hasn’t bedded in at all. Players are torn by the competing demands of club and country, the need to physically survive so attritional a game, and the hope that they won’t end up in homes for the bewildered in their old age, their brains having been battered about like Moore St oranges for ten or fifteen years.

In praising the new breed of lock forward in his Sunday Times column, Stuart Barnes put his finger on another problem of the game, which is its increasing homogeny. Rugby used to be a game of many dimensions, with room for big men, small men, fat men and thin men.

Now, like motor cars, science sees us thundering towards the one streamlined super-player, fast enough to be a back, strong enough to be forward, and all looking the same from one to fifteen. If the players are all the same then the gamed will be all the same and the élan and artistry and sheer drama that international rugby served up for over one hundred years will all be lost and gone with the wind.

Not that you’d know that from the rugby press here. Your faithful correspondent was rather taken aback as different rugby scribes aimed kicks at Joe Schmidt once Schmidt was safely on a plane to the other side of the world and couldn’t hold it against them. The start of the Andy Farrell reign, where the IRFU gave the press a list of list of approved journalists and press accepted being dictated to like lambs and slaves, is not a hopeful sign. It’s the job of the media to tell the people what’s going on. It’s not the job of the media to act as an adjunct of the IRFU’s PR department.

The story of the decade of course is the one that can’t be reported. The FAI are fifty-million Euro in debt, and they say they don’t know how it happened. How can you end up in a fifty-five million Euro hole unbeknownst to you? Fifty-five million is a considerable amount of potatoes. If you were five million in the red, you’d say things were bad. Fifty-five million is Department of Health level stuff. Complete systems failure.

And the public will, as is traditional in the land of Erin, be the last to know. The top brass of the FAI has had legal eagles ready to swoop at any vague hints that there might be funny business going on for the past twenty years and it is a fact that Irish libel laws protect and favour the interests of the strong over those of the weak.

Don’t think that anybody will see prison bars over this either. We don’t do white-collar crime well in Ireland, I’m afraid. The FAI will probably be bailed out by a government too chicken to let nature take its course. Small fry will be put on the dole as a result of that bailout, but the parties responsible will pack up and move to retirement in sunny Spain, and get season tickets for Barca, maybe. It stinks, and it’ll continue to stink for quite some time.

Happy New Year.