Archive for September 28, 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

Ivan Yates (r) and Chris Donoghue, with whom I share Breakfast every day.

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X.

If you’ve been reading the newspapers the last few weeks, you will of course be aware that Ireland’s current problems were not actually caused by the banks or government ineptitude.

The cause of Ireland’s woes is in fact people on social welfare.

How quickly we forget.

This morning, I was listening to Ivan Yates and Chris Donoghue as they wrung another day out the story about the family on welfare that gets €90,000 a year, a shocking sum by any man’s standards.

You’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone in the country bothers working at all, such is the largesse of Ireland’s world-famous welfare state.

So I did what I’m always telling you to do. I went and found out more about the case.

And remarkably, there was more to it than meets the eye. Quelle surprise.

Rather than being a slovenly, chip-munching, Jeremy Kyle-watching, unemployed layabout, the father of this family of four is disabled.

In what most likely represents a saving to the state, his wife receives a carer’s allowance to look after him.

They also act or have acted as guardians for another child (another saving to the state), and one of the four children has special needs.

Add it all up and that means that €47,476 of the ninety grand is directly related to disabilities and special needs.

Keep in mind that that figure of €47,476 does not include the €14,872 they receive for acting as guardians to another child.

I listened to the program on and off for the best part of two hours and didn’t hear this mentioned once.

Now let’s put it all in perspective.

€90,000 for a family of six that hangs around the house doing nothing but smoking dope and procreating is, in all probability, too much money.

Indeed, €90,000 for a family suffering for a series of disabilities and/or special needs may also be too much money.

But on the other hand, paying €62,348 to people with difficulties so that they can support themselves in the home rather than in residential state care could make perfect economic sense.

The point is that we don’t know the circumstances of this family.

We have no idea what the special needs are, or why the father of the family is disabled.

Aside from all this, do we really think that there are hundreds of families all over the country getting €90k a year on social welfare?

Few Irish media organisations have understood the power of social media like Newstalk, and all credit to them. I tweeted the following to Ivan and Chris:

@breakfastnt Just might be worth pointing out that 90k welfare is the exception rather than the rule, or would that ruin your poor-bashing?

In fairness to the hosts, the very next time the story was mentioned Ivan did say that it was an exceptional case (they even retweeted it), but by then the damage may have been done – the following was one of the tweets I saw in relation to the item (the Twitter username and anyone mentioned in the tweet have been redacted):

Lad I knows does be sayin dat a black lad lives near him in 5 bedroom mansion, wears Armani & drives BMW all paid for by de govt

Proof if ever it was needed of the old maxim: “communication is not what is said, but what is heard.”

Whatever our ideology, whatever we think of the banks or the welfare state, we need to be careful of both the language and the arguments we use. Polarising positions does not solve social problems- it just creates an “us against them” mentality.

Nor do extreme examples like this do not make for good case studies, especially given the sparse details around it.

Besides, there are plenty of other wasters more deserving of the attention.

Ivan knows, he used to work with them in Leinster House…

Credit where it’s due in credibility crunch

Presidential hopeful Seán Gallagher- one of the only true democrats in the race so far.

It’s one of life’s great ironies that democracy brings out the worst in people.

Credit, then, to independent candidate Seán Gallagher for his actions in this presidential race.

Safe in the knowledge that he has the support of the four councils he needs to get on that ballot paper, he has graciously requested that other councils find other candidates to support.

Rather than fear the democratic process, Gallagher has embraced it fully, even though he knows that his actions will benefit those ahead of him in the polls. That is the action of a true democrat.

Not so Mary Davis, who continues to collect councils as if they were houses and hotels on a Monopoly board.

Unlike Gallagher, she appears to be gripped by fear at the thought of Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon entering the race; as well she should, with such petty behaviour.

But as usual it is Fianna Fáil that epitomise all that is worst in modern Irish politics.

Beaten almost to political death in the last general election, they lack the courage and backbone to field a candidate of their own, despite there being plenty of party lambs ready for the slaughter.

But as if that wasn’t bad enough, they lack the moral courage to allow their members of parliament to support another candidate.

Let there be no doubt; in a campaign where the general public has clamoured for an open race and where many of the most popular independent candidates need Oireachtas support to get their names on the ballot paper, Fianna Fáil has petulantly turned its back on Irish voters. And not for the first time.

For this is their revenge on the Irish electorate for their terminal decline – spurned by the voters and under the leadership of a political lemming, their revenge can never again come at the ballot box.

So they extract it on the ballot paper instead.

This is why Fianna Fáil, like the (un)Democratic Left and the (not-so) Progressive Democrats represent the past in Irish politics.

This is why the likes of Seán Gallagher represent the future.

Loving the alien- Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness, Derry, 1972.

“Running over the same old ground. 
What have we found? 
The same old fears.”

Pink Floyd, “Wish You Were Here”.

Such was the initial muted reaction to his candidacy, it’s as if the papers couldn’t believe that Sinn Féin would have the audacity to nominate Martin McGuinness for the presidency.

The Sunday papers came and went without much comment, but as the week wore on his opponents became more and more vocal.

The latest to question the Sinn Féin candidate’s suitability for the Aras is none other than Gay Byrne, whose rampant ego almost led him into a campaign backed by a Fianna Fáil party that bankrupted the country.

Byrne, like many others, asked the simple – and simplistic – question; how could a former terrorist with blood on his hands be our president?

The fact that Eamon de Valera was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising seems to have been forgotten.

There is not a shadow of a doubt that McGuinness was heavily involved in the IRA at a time when it was carrying out some of the worst atrocities in the history of our islands, but he is not alone.

There are plenty of other democrats guilty of war crimes still roaming the free world, many of them still in office.

But that was a different time and place. Is he likely to pick up a gun again in the near future? Hardly.

However distasteful we find it, the truth is that at certain times in history, the honest, supine law-abiding citizen has a need for men like McGuinness – the tough guys who operate in a moral grey area well beyond our own comfort zone.

The sort of men who kill people and bury them in shallow graves without a fair trial.

The sort of men who make other men drive bombs into barracks before blowing them up.

The sort of men that prime ministers declare in public that they will never negotiate with, all the while inviting them in by the back door.

Though there are undoubtedly people on both sides of the paramilitary divide that enjoyed killing for the sake of it, I’d doubt McGuinness is one of them.

At the time of the civil rights marches, many in the Republic had already abandoned the nationalist community in the north to their fate , and if there is one thing that my dealings with our cousins in the north has taught me, it is that we in the south have little or no understanding of what it was like to live there in the darkest days of the Troubles.

We’ve had our fleeting experiences of bombs on Talbot Street and army checkpoints and armed Gardaí as the IRA and the INLA robbed banks and took hostages. We didn’t care for it much.

We also failed to notice that this was what life as like in the north for the best part of thirty years, with one exception- the security forces in the north were particularly hostile to one section of the community they were tasked with protecting.

Given our limited experience and our limited attempts to understand and assist, we are in no position to pontificate either way.

McGuinness has come a long way since his days of running around Derry with a gun. The same cannot be said for the rest of us, especially in the south.

Would he be my choice as president? Probably not, but part of the peace dividend for both sides is that Sinn Féin and the IRA would only engage in peaceful democratic means in the future, and this is what McGuinness seeks to do in running for election as our president.

The candidacy of McGuinness is not Sinn Féin’s reward for embracing democracy – it is our reward for allowing them to come in from the cold. Let’s not push them out again.

Belief the key in Norris Late Late Show

Another Friday night, another distinctly underwhelming set-piece interview on Ireland’s Late Late Show.

The world’s longest-running chat show is in danger of consigning itself to history; in trying to be all things to all men, it will soon mean nothing to anyone.

No doubt the producers wanted David Norris to announce that he was back in the race for Ireland’s presidency, but the Joycean scholar didn’t take that dramatic opportunity.

And given the chance to deeper examine his political credentials, the Late Late let another chance go begging.

Instead, old ground about letters written by Norris and his views on the age of consent was covered, without a single new question being asked or angle being offered.

It’s as if the summer never happened at all.

The line of questioning – which is by no means confined to the Late Late and will no doubt be revisited time and again in the coming weeks – says a lot about the opposition to the Norris candidacy.

But forget the questions about clemency and consent for the moment.

The truly important question we should be asking ourselves is this – what are we being asked to believe about Norris?

There is a red thread running through all the allegations being made against Norris – sex with children.

In short, the Irish electorate is being asked to believe that David Norris agrees with paedophilia.

That Norris should write a letter pleading for clemency for a “former lover” (to use the favoured media phrase) convicted of statutory rape is to be interpreted as Norris condoning his crime.

That Norris should have expressed negative views on the age of consent is to be interpreted selfishly- he doesn’t want an age of consent because he and his cronies want to be free to have sex with children.

The truth – stated and restated by Norris – is that he abhorred the crime of his “former lover”, and indeed all abuse of children.

The truth, in the case of the age of consent, is that he believes that children shouldn’t be criminalised for sexual relations with other children, as is the case at the moment – not that children should be sexually exploited by adults, as is implied by his critics.

Lest we forget, Norris grew up in an era when the practice of his own sexuality was a criminal offence.

That he should have considered these matters and hold opinions that differ from the accepted norm should come as no surprise to anyone.

In the meantime, any discussion of his other political views and achievements is strictly off the agenda, and it is fast becoming too late to bring them up.

As yet, what we think is immaterial. In our democratic and political immaturity, Norris will not be put before us as a candidate until he receives the support of twenty of our supposed democratic betters.

But if he should receive that, we will be essentially asked whether or not we believe that David Norris is a paedophile.

And if we collectively do not believe this to be the case – and it appears that an awful lot of people don’t – he will be elected president of Ireland.

Rabbitte not the brightest spark

Pat Rabbitte- soon to take over from Margaret Thatcher as Leo Varadkar's hero.

It was only a matter of time before this government let the privatisation genie out of the bottle.

Word from Kildare Street is that a “minority stake” in the ESB, a company “of strategic significance in the Irish economy ” is up for sale.

There’s a lot to suggest that this the thin end of the wedge.

For a start, it’s fitting that the announcement came did not from Leo Varadkar.

Instead, in a a prime example of the sorry state of socialism in Ireland, it was left to Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte to sell us out again.

The problem with the privatisation genie – like the property genie – is that once he’s let out of the bottle, he’s impossible to put back in.

Rather than sticking up for the working Joe, post-socialist man Pat will soon be espousing the virtues of private ownership and competition, and telling us how they will combine to drive prices down, without being able to cite a single example of where this has happened.

The reality is of course that the new owners will want a return on their investment and prices will rise even quicker than they are at the moment.

For those who doubt it, Sweden deregulated the electricity market a few years ago amidst a fanfare of promises of competition and lower prices.

Of course, the opposite was the case as speculation by energy traders forced prices up as they searched for profit.

Recently, the very newspapers that trumpeted this free market triumph expressed their outrage as helpless customers were ripped off at ever opportunity.

In the most extreme of cases (Russia), we witnessed how the selling-out of the nation’s energy infrastructure and resources created a whole new class of super-rich.

Along with it came corruption on a scale that even Michael Lowry might notice.

Pat and his supposed socialists in the Labour party are not content to facilitate the free market in taking all our money via the bailout; they won’t be happy until they’ve given away all our assets too.

For despite the supposedly unprecedented scale and scope of the credit crunch and subsequent debt crisis, there is nothing new here.

The IMF, like the free marketeers of Fine Gael and the Labour party, is still ideologically driven and utterly intent on selling out Ireland, and not necessairily to the highest bidder.

They do this despite ample evidence that such a sell-out causes more damage than good.

But of course by the time this becomes apparent, it will be too late. The genie won’t be going back into the bottle.

And in the end we’ll be left with Pat, our king of the socialist sell-out.

Ten years after, still light years apart

Apologies for the recent bout of radio silence – suffice to say that having my first book published has proved to be more work than I expected.

For me, being a writer and working in communications is the best job imaginable, but like most people in my situation, I have to keep producing in order to survive.

Thankfully, this work takes my to the heart of the things and places and ideas that appeal to me.

Ten days ago, my work brought me back to Oslo for the first time since Anders Behring Breivik shattered the peace with his bomb and his guns.

What I saw surprised and comforted me in equal measure.

No lockdown at the airport.

No armed police on every street corner.

No security guards in the lobby of the hotel by the central station.

No sense of fear and foreboding.

Whereas terrorist attacks in New York and London provoked fear and loathing and a lust for revenge, the Norwegian people have heeded the call of prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.

More democracy.

In short, in the aftermath of Breivik’s attacks, little has changed.

Long after the flowers left in memory of those who died have wilted, those feelings inspired by Stoltenberg’s reaction to the horror remain strong.

More dialogue. More understanding. More compromise.

There is still, of course, opposition to immigration in some quarters. These things don’t disappear overnight.

The difference is that that debate is now stripped of the dangerous provocative rhetoric that is still on the rise in other European countries.

Whereas the rest of Europe engages in megaphone diplomacy, shouting from its entrenched positions on left and right, Norway is in reasoned conversation with itself.

The very fact that a country that had the heart ripped out of it only a few short weeks ago can do so is proof that Behring Breivik and his extremist counterparts have lost the ideological battle he claimed to be waging; they have been shown up for the irrational, illogical, selfish demagogues they are.

His manifesto, the much-hyped handbook of the hard right, has proved not to be the new European testament; instead, it is the narcissistic ravings of a thankfully small minority.

The silence from the Sweden Democrats is perhaps the greatest symbol of all; for such parties, there is nothing left to say that hasn’t been drowned out by Breivik’s bombs and bullets.

In his fury, Breivik has killed the thing he loved the most; his vision of the re-establishment of an ethnically pure Scandinavia died along with his victims.

The calm that quickly returned to the Oslo streets is in sharp contrast to yesterday’s scenes in New York. Ten years ago, America’s answer to a similar attack was the “war on terror”.

Yesterday, they gathered at Ground Zero to remember- “never forget” was the mantra.

For the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives since that awful day – British and American servicemen and women among them – “never forgive” may have been more appropriate.

SInce 9/11 the discourse in the US has hardened considerably, and political positions remain as entrenched as ever.

Domestically at least, peace is till a long way off.

What tends to get forgotten is that after 9/11 America started a war on terror, and wound up at a war with itself.

The fear, distrust and loathing aimed at the likes of Mohammed Atta and Bin Laden and selfishly nurtured by both sides are now directed at the other side of the House. Ten years on, democracy is still held hostage by their legacy.

In Oslo, peace has already returned. In the face of a similar unspeakable evil, common sense prevailed.

The reason? More democracy.

Those few short hours in Oslo were enough to convince me that if something as precious as democracy is worth fighting for, fighting for it should be our very last last resort.