Archive for December 31, 2012

Toblerones and cojones

Danger: May ruin your political career.

As a new year of political guff and spoofery dawns, we should forget Swedish-style taxes or childcare – what Ireland really needs is Swedish-style politicians.

2012 in Irish politics began as Ivor Callelly was arrested over false mobile phone receipts. As it went on Mick Wallace was found to have welched on VAT payments, and the name of Michael Lowry was never too far from the headlines.

All of these incidents were just the cherries on the usual rancid pile of lies offered up by Irish politicians throughout the year, with the avid kite-flyers of the government almost better by the opposition spivs that bankrupted the country and now crow about it.

Every time some sharp-suited spiv is spotted with his hand in the government expenses cookie jar, I’m reminded of what is quaintly known as “the Toblerone Affair” here in Sweden.

Mona Sahlin – the prime minister that never was.

Back in 1995 Mona Sahlin was the star of Sweden’s Social Democrats – vice prime minister at the time, she was widely tipped to replace Ingvar Carlsson as party leader and become the first female leader of the Scandinavian nation.

But then newspaper Expressen reported that she had used a government-issued bank card to pay around €6000 worth of private expenses – among them two Toblerones, which gave the scandal its name.

Many expenses, such as restaurant visits, had to be paid for in cash at that time, and money to cover them was taken out at an ATM.

In practice, whatever was left over was essentially an advance on the next salary payment.

Sahlin’s problem was twofold; firstly, use of the card for private expenses was strictly prohibited.

Secondly, a bit of journalistic digging showed that she was generally careless with her personal finances, with a slew of unpaid parking fines and under-the-table payments to childcare workers being two incidents that stuck out.

The judgement of the court of public opinion was as swift as it was merciless. On October 14 1995 newspaper Göteborgsposten published an opinion poll in which 66% of the respondents said that Sahlin was unfit to lead the country.

Two days later Sahlin took a “time-out”, removing herself from the race to succeed Carlsson and thus become prime minister.

On October 16 a criminal investigation began. Sahlin dind’t wait around for the outcome – on November 10 she resigned, her career in ruins.

In January 1996 the investigation was closed as no crime could be detected, and Sahlin eventually paid back all monies owed, plus around €1800 extra, but by then it didn’t matter.

The Swedish people demand standards in public office, and Mona Sahlin had not met those standards.

The story doesn’t end there; for the next ten years, Sahlin wandered the political wilderness before finally getting her chance to lead the party following the loss of the 2006 general election and Göran Persson’s subsequent resignation as party leader.

But her dream of being Sweden’s first female prime minister was to remain unrealised.

The electorate in Sweden neither forgives nor forgets in a hurry, and Sahlin and the Social Democrats were narrowly defeated in the 2010.

I covered the election night for a major news agency, and many in her party suggested that, with a different leader, the centre-left coalition would have won the election – but many swing voters felt they couldn’t get behind Sahlin because of her Toblerones.

To Sweden’s credit, from the moment Sahlin’s creative cashflow solution was unveiled, her fate was sealed. This is less certain in Ireland, where the likes of Seán Quinn and Michael Lowry are often regarded as local heroes, rather than greedy spivs.

Fianna Fáil showed signs of learning the lessons of the likes of Sahlin at the last election – faced with a country full of voters that would never elect many of them again, most chickened out and didn’t contest the election.

The chickening-out of Fianna Fáil represents the green shoots of Irish democracy. It shows that we can and will tell politicians when they have done wrong, and that we will not elect them again if they do so.

It’s time to show some cojones raise the bar in public life considerably – no more fraud, no more lies, no more deliberately misleading the public.

Having been put into €78 billion of debt without our say-so, the least the people that put us there can do is be straight with us – and not steal any more from us.

It may take time, but less Toblerones and higher standards shouldn’t unduly hurt our elected representatives.

 

Manager’s self-belief the undoing of Sweden and Ireland

Erik Hamrén – masterminded a 4-4 draw against Germany, without really being able to explain how.

Redemption is by no means given for the two football men who over-estimated themselves most in 2012.

In the end, their Euros ended a  lot quicker than expected. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland were holed in the opening minutes by Croatia and never recovered.

Erik Hamren’s Sweden didn’t even last that long. The naming of Markus Rosenberg for their opener against Ukraine meant that the game was lost before it even began.

Whereas Ireland sank without a trace after the Croatia defeat, the Swedes struggled on manfully against England and even managed a hollow victory against France when it no longer mattered.

What both sides had in common, and what will come to a climax when the two sides meet in key World Cup qualifiers in 2013, is their managers; and more specifically, their massive over-confidence in their own ability.

Trappatoni – the grand master of footballing frustration.

Trapattoni arrived at the Euros convinced that it was he, not his players, who got Ireland there.

He remains convinced that it was his desperately negative tactics, rather than the skills of his XI, that ensured qualification.

Or the fact that the Irish got lucky, drawing a brave but limited Estonia side after barely surviving a perilous qualifying campaign.

It is worse for Sweden, because at least Trapattoni’s limits were shown up by subsequent results.

But when it comes to Erik Hamrén, the smoke and mirrors provided by the genius of Zlatan Ibrahimovic serves to disguise the tactical naivety of the national team coach.

Two incidents stood out this year that showed up his tactical shortcomings.

The first was the selection of Rosenberg – only in the squad due to an injury to John Guidetti and a domestic violence conviction for Alexander Gerndt – to start agaist Ukraine, and what it said about the coach’s mentality.

Despite taking the lead in that game, Sweden struggled, particularly inn the first half. The selection of Rosenberg skewed the balance of the team, forcing Toivonen onto the left wing where he was equally ineffective.

Hamrén later revealed at the post-game press conference that the tactical plan was to attack with long balls for the first 15 minutes, but that the Swedes then couldn’t break the pattern.

To think that raining a few high balls was going to disturb one of the host nations in their opening game in their capital city is breathtakingly naive.

The fact that Hamrén then couldn’t get his players to stop doing so is almost comically inept.

And as for Rosenberg? He played 71 minutes and was barely seen before being replaced by the injured Johan Elmander.

He played 11 more minutes against England, and was equally invisible. Anyone who has seen him play for West Bromwich Albion will know that he is a journeyman – talented, but limited.

And nowhere near good enough to start the opening game at a major tournament.

But for Erik Hamrén, he was the joker in the Euro pack, the man whose inclusion from the start would turn Sweden’s fortunes against the hosts.

What Oleh Blokhin thought of him has so far gone unrecorded, but I’d say if you were to ask him who Sweden’s number 22 was on that night, he wouldn’t remember. And Markus Rosenberg himself probably doesn’t want to.

Of course, the most telling comparison between Trapattoni and Hamrén can be gleaned from the respective qualifiers against Germany this autumn.

Ireland were disembowled 6-1 in front of their own fans, and yet somehow, despite massive internal and external opposition, Trapattoni survived.

His shameful blaming of the players, his claiming of credit where none was due, was one of the more bare-faced examples of his conviction that it is he, and not they, that is the ultimate architect of all success – and none of the failure.

Hamrén’s side fared much better against the Germans, fighting back miraculously from 4-0 down to snatch a point, but that result only tells part of the story – once again he appeared to pick the wrong team, and once again he very nearly left it too late to correct his mistake.

Samuel Holmén on the wing wasn’t much of an inspired choice, but it was the selection of Pontus Wernbloom in central midfield that betrayed Hamrén’s plan to contain, rather than attack, one of the best sides in the world.

It failed, dismally, and Sweden were torn apart. Wernbloom is an excellent player who has matured immensely (and a joy in press conferences and mixed zones), but if you invite a team like Germany to play football in front of you, they will – and then they’ll play through you, as Ireland had found out to their cost a few days previously.

For once it wasn’t the magisterial Ibrahimovic who turned the game, even if he did play a big part; it was the introduction of Kim Källström that turned the game on its head.

Several weeks later I cornered Erik Hamrén and asked him about the turnaround.

He had previously made much of the fact that eventually he got the balance right, and that the players that finish the game are almost more important than the ones that started it.

I pressed him on what Sweden managed to do that Ireland didn’t or couldn’t, and he became somewhat irritated.

“As I said before, it was attitude and commitment,” he told me, and I stopped listening.

Despite his stated penchant for watching games over and over again, he was unable or unwilling to offer a tactical explanation of what Sweden finally started to do right.

To Hamrén, the tactical details are seemingly unimportant, or at least not worth sharing with journalists and fans.

What is important is the triumph, the cigar, the collective effort. Not recognising the errors made when setting out the team, or trying not to repeat them.

It’s seldom profitable to extrapolate in this way, but ponder this fact: when Källström was on the pitch, Sweden beat Germany 4-1.

When Wernbloom was there, they lost 3-0.

Having seen virtually every game played under Hamrén, I doubt strongly that the tactical aspect of the game is his strong suit. He is an honset, decent, emotional man who is truly trying to do his best.

But his strength is in blending players together, motivating them, creating an atmosphere in which they can thrive and feel confident.

It’s not great, but it’s good enough to get results against some good teams.

It’s unlikely, however, to be good enough to fool Trapattoni, the grand master of footballing frustration.

Should the Italian – who celebrates his birthday on St Patrick’s Day, a week before the two teams clash in Stockholm – have Richard Dunne available, he will be confident of getting at least a point.

Trappatoni’s true gift is in gettign lesser minds like Hamren to reveal themselves and their weaknesses, and then punishing them accordingly.

Player for player, Sweden are superior to Ireland in most departments, and Trappatoni will use that knowledge to lure them out.

He will stop them playing balls up to Ibrahimovic (who has never played well against Ireland). They will kick and irritate him, and they will target the younger players for similar treatment.

THe Irish will target the Swedish full-backs, knowing them to be the weak links defensively, and that balls into the box are a lottery when Andreas Granqvist is in there defending.

And then, when they least expect it, Trapattoni will instruct his troops to exploit the tactical naivety of the Swedes at a corner or a set piece, and stage the Stockholm smash ‘n grab that England couldn’t manage.

Because ultimately, the difference in the two coaches is that one of them is more than aware of the limitations of his side and plays accordingly.

The other isn’t, and doesn’t.

Ten things Irish politicians should realise about the Internet and social media.

1. It’s not new. All this waffle about “abusive comments” and “cyberbullying” would give you the impression that that this had sprung up out of nowhere.

It hasn’t. Since the dawn of time on the Internet, people have abused one another.

2. The more extreme your opinions, the more extreme the reactions you will provoke.

If you insist on bashing out offensive twaddle with your rosary beads entwined around your stubby fingers, don’t be surprised if some patchouli-oil drenched feminist calls you a wanker.

3. The Internet is not a broadcast medium.

Hard to believe, I know, but this is not like appearing on the One O’Clock News, where you say your piece, Seán O’Rourke tries to provoke you a little bit and then you don’t answer any of his questions before sailing off on a wave of smug self-satisfaction.

In Internet land, people can respond.

And worse again, they have facts, and arguments, and like-minded individuals to back them up. Frightening.

4. The law of the land applies online.

You think something is libellous? Fine. Sue.

You think it’s illegal? Call the cops.

You find it offensive? Grow a pair.

No matter how bad it gets, there is always someone suffering worse.

I have seen first-hand the vile abuse that women are subjected to on the Internet by Neanderthals, and unfortunately if it ain’t illegal, you can only take it for what it is.

Which is nonesense, to be ignored. So use the block and report functions.

It isn’t that difficult, and it’s very effective.

5. The Internet magnifies anger, and none more so than the righteous anger of the grievioulsy wronged.

See all that stuff about wanting to crucify Ronan Mullen using rusty nails? They don’t really, genuinely want to do that.

Probably.

6. Social media is actually your friend – particularly Twitter.

It’s a real-time baromoeter of what a lot of people in the country think, and it even compartmentalises itself nicely.

You have the anti-abortion crackpot wing (new accounts where “foetus” and “baby” are interchangble), you have the Libertas wing, you have the free-spirited economic wing, and the D4 meeja brigade.

And then you have the suave, intelligent, succinct media commentator brigade, but I’m pretty much on my own there. For now, at least.

7. Very few people can manage to successfully be someone else on the Internet, because over the course of time you will get found out.

A drunken comment here, a racist aside there – all will come up in the Google wash at one point or another, and all can be magnified under the hue and cry of the mainstream media spotlight – let alone the social media one.

8. Stop trying to control the medium – the medium is not the problem.

It’s the message you should be concerned about – if people disagree with you, as a politician you should be trying to work out why.

Is it because they are Nazis, or because your actions or your vote takes money out of their pocket, or bread off their table, or teachers out of their schools?

9. Take a line out of Twitter’s book and tell the party whip to go f**k himself.

That will save you 95% of the abusive tweets and e-mails you get, because at least you’ll be sticking up for your voters, rather than your party overlords.

10. Stop reading this and go engage with your voters online, via social media and the rest.

You’ll soon find that most of the people who do engage are passionate, politically aware and patriotic, and the rest are the extremist crackpots that you could expect to meet in any walk of life.

Especially if you work in Dáil Eireann.

Suicide, social media and getting stick from voters

Shane McEntee TD, who died this week.

The death by suicide of Irish parliamentarian Shane McEntee has prompted a slew of stroies in Sunday’s papers suggesting that bullying on social media was in some way a contributing factor – it seems cyberbulying is making it into the adult world.

In cases of suicide there is always an unseemly yet understandable rush to find out the why, and media in particular are always looking for a hook to hang their hat on.

Invariably, they pick it up and move on soon afterwards, leaving pelnty of their original questions unanswered.

Noticeable in Ireland’s Sunday newspapers is the conclusion that social media abuse hurled at McEntee is partially responsible, without ever really analysing why he was getting it.

The Sunday Independent reports that it was over the respite care cuts in the last budget, and if true McEntee essentially represents the first known victim of the latest installment of the austerity we flagellate ourselves with.

In that case, the ire should not be aimed at Twitter or Instagram, but at those who insist that our decent politicians – people like Shane McEntee, or many in the Labour party – are forced to vote against their principles, or walk the political desert.

That’s not to say that negativity directed at an individual on social media doesn’t have an effect.

I recall doing one TV show in Sweden which was put up on Youtube, where my contribution got dozens of positive comments. But the only one I recall is the one that said “he gets boring very quickly”.

It was like being punched in the stomach.

But as someone who works in media, I have to understand that the comment is not about my entire personality – the person making it has only seen me on Youtube, or maybe read some articles, so how could it be?

The commenter was criticising my performance, and that is fine – it goes with the territory. That I originally took it personally is my fault, not his or hers.

Personal abuse is different, and here is where the boundaries get blurred, especially in terms of politicians.

For instance, I think it’s entirely fair to refer to the Irish Labour Party’s elected representatives as spineless – how could one otherwise explain the abandonment of their principles as soon as they got into office?

That’s not to say that Pat Rabbitte isn’t a good father to his children, or that Joanna Tuffy is a bad person. It’s just that they are politically spineless, accepting policies that they promised their voters they wouldn’t.

Like the Arab Spring, social media has made our country more democratic. It provides instant feedback to our politicians about where they are going wrong, and indeed the few times they get it right.

But democracy demands that we be careful in our exercising of this power of communication – whatever the government does, we must play the ball, not the man.

Only then will can we demonstrate that it is the policies of this government that are ruining people’s lives, and not the reaction to them – on social media or otherwise.

NRA = IRA

A protestor holds up an anti-NRA sign.

The saddest thing about the pathetic statement by the NRA is the fact that nothing will now change.

Had they agreed to controls on the most deadly of weapons, some progress could have been made, but the political will in America does not exist to challenge them.

America is effectively ruled by the guns they control.

Because what is it the Second Amendment really guarantees?

In the wake of the Newton massacre last weekend, I sat beside broadcaster Tom McGuirk in an RTE radio studio.

At various points McGuirk suggested that guns weren’t the problem, until I politely suggested that there was one thing that could have been removed from the Newton massacre that would have ensured the survival of all or most of those children – the gun.

Moments later McGuirk was talking about the importance of the British secret service and their role in the “defeat” of the IRA.

But given their modus operandi, the IRA and the NRA are not too disimilar – unelected, both nevertheless have a chilling effect on the democracies they exist in.

Like the bible, the American constitution is a document of its time, and when it was written the fledgling nation was intent on doing everything it could to protect its new-found freedom.

Hence the right to defend those freedoms – even against its own government – was enshrined in a dubioulsy-worded amendent. Noticeably, assault rifles are not mentioned, which according to some gives them carte blanche to carry them.

For what the Second Amendment essentially does is give the NRA the right to act as the American equivalent of the IRA, a kind of secretive political police force that malevolently oversees things.

Unelected, it can use fear and intimidation to exert its influence on an otherwise democratic state – much as the IRA did in its “armed struggle”.

For the gun in American history and its current politics is not about violence or machoism, even though both play their part.

For Americans, the gun is a potent symbol of freedom, rather than oppression and death. If ever there was a country that was now ruled with a ballot box and an Armalite (or one of 300 million similar weapons), America is it.

The Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic to settle on the American continet were all fleeing something. Sometimes, as in the case of the Irish, it was hunger. For others, it was religious persecution.

Some of them wanted no truck with any church; instead, they reserved the right to interpret the bible as literally and as opportunistically as they wished.

The same people now choose to interpret the American constitution in the same way – the way that suits them best, much as Irish Republicans twisted their  interpretation of history until it allowed them to bomb and shoot and maim with impunity over almost 40 years.

The discussion in America should not, therefore, centre on gun control; the discussion should centre on how to rebuild trust between the state and its citizens – if such a thing never existed.

It is doubtful that it can be done; American politics is a poisonous mass of extremism, thanks to divisive issues and elements such as abortion, the various wars fought in Asia, the Tea Party and gun control itself.

America is a nation of vested interests that are quick to act should Johnny Sixpack suddenly start demanding safety and security.

That many of the fears propagated by politicians and squawk-box commentators are unfounded make no difference; America has never seemed to have established for itself that solidarity and security go hand in hand.

It is easier to blame the nameless, faceless other than to face up to the truth.

But to do so would be to acknowledge that the Europe its forefathers left had gotten something right.

“War is over, if you want it,” sang John Lennon.

But it appears that, despite 20 dead children, the aftermath of the War of Independence, because the NRA don’t want it.

Mis-selling and misunderstanding

By raising PRSI, this government has proved itself no better than mis-selling banks it slavishly serves.

Budget 2013: Michael “Tweedle Dumb” Noonan. (Not pictured: Brendan “Tweedle Dumber” Howlin.)

Why is the government attacking the banks for mis-selling Payment Protection Insurance, and then doing exactly the same itself?

With this hopelessly ineffective coalition hog-tied by an ideological insistence on not raising income tax or reducing base rates of social welfare, there was little enough room for cuts or revenue-raising.

So what do you do?

Cut everything that isn’t base-rate welfare, and raise everything that isn’t income tax.

But as ever, the government (and much of the electorate) has misunderstood the concept of social insurance, and the fact that for it to be justified, people have to get something in return.

Why, for instance, should self-employed people be forced to pay PRSI when the chances of them ever getting anything for it are about as much as the Green Party ever being seen again?

The banks are rightly being hammered (and wrongly, in some cases, being able to avoid responsibility) for selling insurance policies that would more or less never pay out.

Rather than adopting the principle of paying for something and actually getting something in return, the government seems to have copied this scam of selling a dodgy insurance policy for their own use.

It should come as no surprise, of course. They’ve already decided to ape the banks when it comes to their funding issues and the foisting of private debt upon the general public, so a little mis-selling of insurance shouldn’t bother us.

Commentators (particularly the myopic ‘spokespeople’ for small and medium enterprises and economic think-tanks) tell us that ‘we must incentivize people to work’ – but where is the incentive for the self-employed in paying huge sums and getting nothing in return?

Their other favourite word – ‘competitiveness’ – was nowhere in evidence as the government once again studiously avoided doing anything about the laughably expensive childcare costs in Ireland.

Competitiveness is not simply getting people to work as cheaply as possible – it’s creating a situation where they can work, because the social infrastructure around them allows them to do so.

Forget taxes, and the idea that a small rise would cause a modern-day equivalent of the Flight of the Earls – it is the astronomical childcare costs that mean Dublin families must cough up thousands of euro of taxed income just to be able to go to work – with the rest of the country not far behind.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was another dig at women with the introduction of taxation on maternity benefit, as a less-than-generous system is further watered down to appease those bankrolling the economy.

And just how bound are we by these ideological insistences?

Well, our friends at the Iona Institute – not exactly paragons of reason – saw plenty to kick up about in the reduction of child benefit, but had nothing to say about the reduction in maternity benefit.

Next time they tell you they supposedly have the interests of mothers at heart too, you’ll know it’s lip service.

In fact in Ireland, lip service is about all that most people now paying PRSI will find they are entitled to.