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.