Archive for April 25, 2011

Blast from the past with no place in the future.

They haven’t gone away, you know, no matter how much you’d like them to.

And as long as they keep getting headlines, they’re not likely to.

Today brought a statement – fittingly recorded in a graveyard – from the Real IRA. But rather than bury their failed, tired rhetoric,  the last nuts in the fruitcake of physical force Republicanism once again aired their views that policemen are legitimate targets and that the Queen is a war criminal.

It would have been quaint, had they not recently succeeded in murdering a young Catholic man recently.

Their continued existence is not surprising- what is staggering is that, in this day and age, a handful of crackpots making threats and calling the Queen a war criminal is still considered news by editors around the world.

What other outfit, numbering a few dozen at the hard core centre, could demand such valuable publicity? None. No-one else would be taken seriously. And rightly so.

There is no doubt that the Real IRA have some dangerous men in their ranks, but they are an awful lot less than the media would have you believe. They won’t be murdering the Queen when she comes to visit, for a start.

The threat they pose may be significant, but their ability to execute on a small scale. Such is life as a fringe terrorist organisation.

But that matters not to RTE, or Yahoo! or many of the other news carriers. They bang the big drum, putting these guys front-row and centre on their website, as if they represented something that any sane person actually believes in any more.

Now don’t get me wrong -  I’ve spent much of the first half of this year thinking and reading abut the hunger strikes of thirty years ago, and trying to put them in the context of the Ireland that has developed since those young men died.

What would Bobby Sands have made of the banking crisis, I wonder?

I’m as big a Republican as the next man, and I would hope that at some time in my lifetime the island of Ireland will be united. But I’m well aware that it will not happen without consent.

And if it does happen through violence, I want no part of it.

But instead, the news organisations would rather trumpet the view of the handful that say we have taken the wrong path, and in doing so, they lend some legitimacy to the cause.

But maybe the news organisations giving the story top billing doesn’t matter.

Maybe we have moved on from where allowing such views to be aired risked recruiting new followers for them.

Maybe we have come so far from the violence that it is now obvious that it is no longer the way to go.

If we have, it shouldn’t be long before the balaclaved man in the graveyard is standing there talking to himself.

Sympathy for the Bedevilled

The Four Courts - surprisingly, not a development owned by NAMA. Yet.

We don’t make it easy on them, to be fair.

The Irish are not an easy bunch to rule in a conventional sense.

We don’t really pay much attention to laws and rules and regulations; most of our times is spent looking for loopholes to circumvent them, rather than trying to understand why they might be a good idea.

In the few instances where these cannot be found, we simply ignore or flout them. During the 80s an entire generation of people would rather fly through the windscreen of a car than submit to the indignity of wearing a seatbelt as laid down by law.

The same with drink-driving. No amount of legislation could convince a man that he wasn’t fit to drive a car after six or seven pints. Especially not after he’d had six or seven pints.

That our politicians should be so loathe to regulate us should come as no surprise; contrary to popular belief, they do not simply spring up in Leinster House like wallflowers. They come from among us.

But the problem arises when things get out of control, like they did with the property market or the banking system or the Catholic Church. Allowing such entities to police themselves never works – how could it? It’s not in their interest to police themselves.

Nor do we do accountability particularly well, if at all. On this Good Friday, there is no evidence of bankers, politicians or developers crawling to the cross to confess their sins and declare their regret and shame before the public.

On the contrary, many of them still believe that they have done nothing wrong and legally at least, no crimes have yet been proven.

And in many cases, they won’t be. Staggeringly, as Nick Leeson has pointed out, financial stupidity is not a crime – if it was, those responsible for the financial mess would be behind bars long ago.

But the vast majority of their actions were entirely legal – they were not against the law because no such laws exist.

In the few cases where blame can be apportioned, there is the usual marked reluctance to do so. Nyberg swapped his Finnish pragmatism for Irish fudge, the latest in a long line of reports that refused to apportion blame by name.

We must be the only nation whereby the billions spent on the tribunal or investigation is an end in itself.

However long this government lasts, it’s biggest job will not be to repair the banking system or to create jobs, as that will eventually happen anyway thanks to the (often violent) self-correction of markets.

The biggest task that this and subsequent governments face is the rebuilding of Irish society from the ground up.

We need to redefine our attitudes to money, to wealth, to Europe and to each other.

We need to understand our responsibilities to ourselves, our families and our neighbours.

And we need to accept that our actions have consequences, and that if we act in a way that is not in the best interests of our society, then we will have to suffer those consequences.

It’s time we grew up. And in doing so, we might force our politicians to do the same.

Leo the Lion and the Semi-State Smokescreen

Leo - driving the LUAS for less.

Pat Rabbitte gave us a taste of Ireland’s Thatcherite future on Vincent Browne last night, and on Prime Time tonight it was the turn of his new master, Leo Varadkar.

He didn’t disappoint.

Leo has a way with words – often clumsy, sometimes eloquent, but always revealing. His innate smugness means that he can’t help letting us know how clever he thinks he is, and in doing so he often unwittingly reveals his true thoughts.

Take the sell-off of semi-state bodies.

In a nutshell, he told us his government wouldn’t sell off “strategic assets” – not companies mind, but assets. In an effort to ensure that the public wouldn’t start to suspect another Eircom fiasco, he then fudged as much as possible as to which ones.

The upshot is that, for those of you who thought we’d be starting at the thin end of the state sell-off wedge, Leo is already way ahead of you. He intends to keep the bare minimum in state control.

Having sold off assets as quickly as possible for two billion or so – “a target that doesn’t come from anywhere”, according to the minister – he will set about dumping the wages of the employees.

He attacked bus drivers and postmen for having the cheek to earn fifty or sixty grand a year. Poor people in menial jobs earning reasonable money? This won’t do.

But the biggest fib of all was gotten out of the way early in the Prime Time debate with Socialist TD Clare Daly, when Leo the Lion made the audacious claim that the two billion raised would be invested in job creation.

It won’t Leo, and you know it won’t.

It will be handed over to the moneylenders in Europe, like everything else we raise over the next thirty years or so. To claim otherwise – especially in a craven attempt to back up a less-than-watertight ideological point – is dishonest.

Dishonest, but unsurprising – Varadkar is after all the doctor whose denials of a link between poverty and ill health would be laughable if they weren’t so scary.

Irish voters are slowly waking up to the fact that, by voting in Varadkar and his fellow Thatcherites in the Labour party, they may have made a serious mistake. They have now agreed to accept the banking debt as their own.

Some of them are understandably loathe to indulge in a quick sell-off of some of the state’s most valuable assets, well aware that despite Leo’s protestations and promises of benign commerce, it’s impossible to get the privatisation genie back in the bottle once he’s been released.

But as with the Rabbitte caught in Vincent’s headlights last night, it’s all a moot point. Given the size of the problems faced by the Irish economy, two billion here or there won’t make the blindest bit of difference, and by selling off these assets we’ll simply be poorer than we are now.

And when you’re this poor as a nation, the degree of your poverty ceases to matter.

Ultimately, despite efforts by many to paint them as such, neither the semi-state bodies nor the public service nor the minimum wage are the root of all evil.

The problems faced by this country are problems caused by unfettered markets and pliable, malleable, supine politicians. Those tasked with regulating the generation of wealth chose to turn a blind eye, instead allowing themselves and their cronies to coin it in.

And why a free marketeer like Leo isn’t prepared to let the market take its course and incur deserved losses on those who took risks is beyond me. Like many free marketeers, it seems Leo the Lion only likes it when the market going his way.

Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned

Politics is often nothing more than the art of being able to say “I told you so”, no matter what the outcome.

There was “Straight Talkin’” Pat Rabbitte on Vincent Browne this evening, giving it large about how we couldn’t possibly burn the bondholders, or anyone else who wasn’t working class, poor, young, old  or infirm.

Of course, just a few short weeks ago he and Eamon Gilmore were promising us “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”. I think we all know how that turned out – at the first sign of a cabinet post Labour’s bluster was gone with the wind.

Fine Gael weren’t far behind them, and the Hide and Seek Champion of Mayo is dodging all talk of burden-sharing. You’d swear there was never a five-point plan at all.

Besides, it’s too late now. As pointed out before the election, a vote for FG or a vote for Labour was a tacit acceptance that the bank debt was ours to bear. No point whining about now, unless we’re seriously prepared to do something about it.

And then populist Pat, suffering under the barrage from Browne and Mary-Lou McDonald, turned his ire on the CEO of ESB, who apparently earns €750,000 a year.

Rabbitte, struggling to get some points on the board, honorably went ahead and attacked a man not there to defend himself.

He even went as far as to open public negotiations with his successor – whoever that may be – by saying that the new person in the position won’t get anywhere near that.

I don’t think you’re the best man to judge that Pat, just as you couldn’t be telling anyone at AIB what they can earn.

You’ll be forced to pay whatever the market demands for a competent person to run a national power company. And if you decide to pay peanuts, you’ll simply end up adding to the abundance of monkeys running – and ruining – Irish public life.

For this is what the free market does. Based on all available information it sets a price, and then it’s up to you to pay it – otherwise someone else will.

Which is exactly why the ESB shouldn’t be sold off just yet, if it is ever to be sold off at all.

The markets are well aware that we have no arse in our trousers and that we are in no position to negotiate; even if we were, we lack people capable of doing so. Thus, we would get nowhere near the real market value for the asset.

The second reason for not selling it off is competitiveness. The CEO of the newly-privatised Irish electricity company would set about justifying his massive new salary by generating massive profits for the new owners- at the expense of the households and small businesses, at a time when they can least afford it.

They have neither the mandate nor the interest in helping the country recover- they are simply interested in profit.

It’s the way the free market works Pat, and the longer you sit on the benches with Fine Gael, the more you’ll find out about it, and the more you’ll have to sit beside Vincent and defend actions that you would never in your wildest dreams have countenanced when you were on the opposition benches.

Breaking the bullying cycle

Even though I’m surrounded by them, I’m glad I’m not a teacher. My brother, my mother and my wife are all teachers, and I can safely say that with my lack of patience, I’d spend more time in front of a judge than a blackboard.

But things can be learned from them, and given the difference in the educational upbringing of my wife and I (mine at the hands of the Christian Brothers, hers in a modern, liberal Swedish/European system), it’s a subject often discussed at home.

Take bullying, for example.

At my wife’s school, bullying is taking very seriously indeed. The alleged perpetrator is immediately removed from the environment and asked about the situation.

There is no accusation, no discussion about the past, about evidence or specific incidents. A simple question to the bully follows- what are you going to do about it?

Though bullying still occurs, it is a very effective way of acknowledging and dealing with the problem not least because no time is wasted in raking over the past. The future is what matters.

But in European politics the attitude is the opposite. Bullied into repeating referenda until the desired response was given, Ireland is now being hung by its y-fronts from the school railings and further humiliated over the bailout.

We sent for our big brother, but rather than the aggressive rugby player or hurling captain we got Enda and Michael, who, like their predecessors, also turned out to have glass jaws.

On the sidelines stand the chief cheerleaders of the bullies- men like Peter Sutherland, who as chair of Goldman Sachs cravenly hopes to share in whatever lunch money the rest manage to beat out of us.

Otherwise reasonable nations like Sweden, Denmark and Belgium stand silently by, fearful that in different circumstances it could be them on the hook.

There are two ways to fight back, and neither of them is easy. The first is to hit back and give the bully a bloody nose by not paying up. This of course would result in a massive beating from the markets, but the only way to wind this bully is to hit him in the wallet.

Besides, we won’t have access to the markets for the foreseeable future, so they’d be no great loss. And standing up to the economic bullying is the first stroke we need to pull if we are to return to the confidence trick known as the money markets.

The second, less-preferrable option is to band together with the other poor unfortunates and try to present a united front- essentially saying to our creditors “go ahead and beat us, but only for 23 hours a day, rather than the 24 you’re filling at the moment. Thanks”. There is no respect to be won here.

At the bottom of all this, most worryingly of all, an ideological battle is being waged, and staggeringly it is the free marketeers- who caused this mess in the first place- who look like winning it.

People like Leo Varadkar, who believe that there is no link between poverty and ill health, no longer have to argue their case for eradicating the welfare state; there is simply no money left to pay for decent healthcare, so it’s a moot point. Ditto social welfare. Ditto minimum wage.

Note how all these affect the poor disproportianately.

There is a third way, of course, and that is to take the bully out of the class and ask him what he is going to do about his behaviour.

To succeed, the Irish government would need to precede this by doing going on a Europe-wide PR offensive, doing set-piece interviews with the major European newspapers and explaining in great deal what not renegotiating is going to cost the French and German taxpayer over the next ten years.

There is nothing the European holds more sacred than his hard-won pension, and to implicitly or explicitly threaten its value by forcing a meltdown on the euro would make them sit up and take notice like a gunshot.

We need to play the bully’s game and we need to do it to the same audience, but with elections coming up all over Europe the timing may be all wrong.

So given the limited options available, let’s go for the first option.  It’s time to roll up your sleeves and swing as hard as you can Enda, safe in the knowledge that we’re all behind you – for now.

Meet the new boss…

Michael Noonan- hope springs eternal...

At first I thought there was something wrong with my TV.

When watching Dáil proceedings, a low humming could be heard.

I switched TV, but the problem didn’t go away.

I alerted the people at the Dáil, but their technicians were baffled by it. Then we copped on.

The humming wasn’t because of some technical fault.

It was actually Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams purring on the opposition benches, as the parties all around him scrambled to rearrange the deckchairs on our rapidly-sinking country.

Contrary to popular belief, it now appears that the big winner in the last election was Gerry, not Enda, and the big loser was Eamon Gilmore and not Mícheál Martin.

Martin was always destined to be cleaned out, but it was Gilmore who promised us “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”, before promptly giving us Frankfurt’s way almost before the final count was over. “Gilmore for Taoiseach” indeed.

The strutting confidence of Kenny and Noonan has all but disappeared, as Michael meekly declared today that he “hopes” that  promise to cut the Irish bailout interest rate will be honoured.

A marked difference from their promise in the now-legendary – and quickly forgotten – five point plan. “Fine Gael will take on the big vested interests that have contributed to the current crisis – the bankers, the bondholders, the developers and the unions”.

They all remain untouched, much as they would have had Martin somehow miraculously won. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

And so to Gerry, purring over Sinn Féin’s policies which were proved right, simply because by not being in power, he cannot be proved wrong.

It has turned out more or less as he predicted- we’ve swapped one for the other. The policies are no different.

The only real triumph in the face of this lack of creative thought by our government alternatives has been the writings of David McWilliams.

His ability to recast and rephrase the same or similar arguments and solutions has been remarkable, yet no matter what innovative ideas he comes up with, it seems that those in power will not listen to them, just because of where they come from.

It’s like turning down the cure for cancer because it was discovered by Jack the Ripper.

And this is essentially the choice that Irish people will face in the next election when it comes to Adams.

Will they be able to look beyond the skeletons in the Sinn Féin closet and effect real change, or will Adams and the party be condemned to continued atonement for the sins of the past for the foreseeable future?

 

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Gardai arresting protestors in Co Mayo (from the Sunday Tribune).

There is nothing as funny as the mass, knickers-in-a-twist hysteria that can grasp a nation, as they simultaneously seem to miss the point completely.

First up was the perfect storm of headlines about a recording of a Corrib Garda saying “Give me your name and address or I’ll rape you” on tape.

Cue the talking heads telling us that rape is a serious crime etcetera etcetera. Like we hadn’t noticed.

Then the swarm moved on to attack Vincent Browne, who said on his TV show last night that jokes about rape are commonplace in the lexicon of the Irish male.

Was Vincent right? Probably, but before you go running to your Twitter machine in disgust you’d do well to remember the playground jokes of your youth.

For people of my age it was mostly Ethiopians, Jews and Kerry people that bore the brunt, as such tragedies as the African famine, the Holocaust and the failure to win five in a row were mercilessly mocked.

Just as music gets worse with every passing generation, so too does humour – the taboos become fewer and fewer and the jokes get more and more crass and tasteless.

It should come as no surprise that such jokes are being made in the workplace, even if that workplace is a squad car – journalist Brian O’Connell referred to an incident on Twitter where a youngster was seen to be making jokes about it at a sporting event.

Despite the great advances in Irish culture, we are not yet a bastion of feminism. And whatever the spin, what the garda in question said was meant as a joke – there was contempt, but no threat or malice.

What is truly alarming is that there has been little debate about why the woman was arrested, when all she seemed to be doing was exercising her democratic right to peaceful protest.

Could it be that the Gardaí have instructions from their political masters not to allow such peaceful protests?

Could it be that they are in effect operating as a private security firm for Shell?

Could it be that a tasteless joke made by an idiot is turning into a smokescreen, where one person’s freedom of speech is being attacked to cover up for the fact that another’s is being denied?