Switch off, tune in, chill out this Christmas

A word to the wise this yuletide – as you go into battle with other Christmas shoppers to get the last few bits for what you hope will be the perfect celebration, there is one simple choice you can make to bring your family and friends closer.

As you approach the trenches of tills, under constant attack from dawn to dusk, you will see them.

Cardboard-packed sentries, sleek lines of lithium soldiers with their indisputable message.

Gaudy signs saying “Don’t Forget the Batteries!” conjure up images of crying children and frustrated fathers, and mothers quietly tearful as Christmas is consigned to failure because of some piece of plastic lacking a few volts.

But we must resist; leave them there at the till, and silence whatever emerges from under your Christmas tree for a few brief hours.

And if you do insist on buying them to power your presents, put them in a pile with all your chargers and transformers and gadgets, and leave them until the 26th instead.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no luddite technophobe. I spend 364 days a year online or in motion, photographing, filming, recording, monitoring, reading, filing.

There is barely a moment in my day when I’m not within touching distance of a screen or a social network.

My office is so full of gadgets (media players, quadcopters and cameras) that I can barely get in the door.

But given all the heartache we have heard in the run-up to Christmas about emigration and poverty and homelessness, this year I want to put them all to one side and just enjoy the people I’ll be spending time with.

This cannot be done while Instagramming a turkey, or while Googling “100 best Android apps” for the niece’s new tablet.

(The fact that she’s not yet two has me wondering if it’s the right present at all).

If you’re lucky enough to have a roof over your head, and some good friends or a loving family to spend it with, hit the “Off” button.

Power everything down, and put it in the middle of the table, and if anyone should crack and head for Facebook, let them do the washing-up.

Make a rule that if it can only be done by one person, or seen on one screen, it’s out.

Instead, do things together. Watch a movie, play a board game, listen to music, talk, cook, laugh. Sing. Dance. Have the craic. Just don’t do it alone, if at all possible.

Do the things that make Christmas memorable – pull a cracker, stick a hat on, catch up, tell rubbish jokes, eat, drink and be merry.

Bring in the neighbour on the night-shift, and give her a turkey sandwich and a whiskey or tea.

Remember too those around you who are not as fortunate, and instead of stepping over them or ignoring them, throw them a kind word or a couple of euro, even if it’s not ultimately going to be spent on a hostel – we will not solve the problems of homelessness or addiction over just one Christmas, so we may as well try to make people suffering from them feel loved and comfortable until we do.

I guarantee I’m not going to find this easy, and nor will most – we have become so entwined in gadgets and communication that we barely have an offline life anymore.

But spending so much time looking at life through a lens or on a screen, it recently occurred to me that the best stories are still the ones you hear face to face, from real, living, flesh-and-blood creatures.

So screw the batteries, and the chargers and the broadband this Christmas; forget them all, but don’t forget your family, your friends or your fellow man.

They’ll light up this dark time of the year better than any shiny online gadget ever could.

Sing when your losing

“It says here that we’re out of the bailout.” – Enda Kenny, telling you whatever he’s told to tell you.

The celebrations have already begun. The spinning is already reaching fever pitch.

Ministers are saying, among other things, that the bailout is over, there will be no crock of gold, and austerity will continue.

More of the same, in other words.

But sure aren’t we great all the same?

Ireland is indeed exiting its bailout, and it will culminate in a TV address by Enda Kenny on Sunday.

I won’t be watching.

If I was, I’d expect to hear him “thank” the Irish people for the “sacrifices” that they have made.

No mention will be made of the fact that they were never asked whether they wanted to make these sacrifices or not, nor will there be a word about the  money and the future that was stolen from them.

Instead, fueled more by ego than egalitarianism, the most powerless leader in Europe will waffle his way through some platitudes about “the best little country in the world to do business” and what great Europeans we all are.

Once again you will be told that there was no choice – there was no other way.

Then you’ll be told the banks are well-capitalised, and that Ireland is back in the markets and well-funded, and not to pay any attention to the shiver that that news sends down your spine as the ghost of Brian Lenihan flits across your screen.

Of course, no journalist will be allowed into the studio while this farce takes place, nor will the opposition have a chance to question him. Enda doesn’t do debate. He doesn’t do accountability. He doesn’t answer questions. Mostly because he can’t.

Stilted, slow-witted, he limits himself to reading what it says on the card. Understanding it is not a prerequisite. You are being talked at, not to.

If I could, I’d skip Enda’s narcissistic news bulletin and instead invite everyone available to join me outside the GPO, where we can all bring our bodhráns and get decked out in our green jerseys and flags and sing a few songs.

And just at the moment he commences his pointless spoofery on RTE, we can all burst into “The Fields of Athenry”, the song that under Giovanni Trapattoni became our anthem of failure when hopelessly outclassed in Europe.

In this context it is even more fitting, given its depiction of poor folk persecuted by the authorities and forced to leave for Australia against their will.

The irony would be lost on Enda, but not on the fathers and mothers contemplating Christmas alone as their offspring celebrate on a beach on the other side of the world.

And when we’re done singing our bitter hymns of longing and failure, we can all go home again and change nothing, because that is what we do.

We accept that the wealth of the nation is given away. We accept the narrative that it is the poor, and not the ruling class or the speculators, that are really to blame.

We’ll go back to laughing at careerist civil servants and their attempts to hold on to their pensions, all the while electing careerist politicians too simple and dull to facilitate the meaningful change that would be required, not to create a just society, but just to manage a bearable one.

We will quietly admit that the concept of the fighting Irish is very much an American construct and has little to do with the supine manner in which we have surrendered our democracy to men like Enda Kenny and Colm Keavney.

And in doing so we will admit that we deserve no better, because we are no longer prepared to fight for what is right. And we probably never were.

And in the meantime, those a long way from the fields of Athenry will look back at Ireland and wonder why anyone bothers to stay at all – apart from gormless Enda and the rest of the privileged few, that is.


Welfare tourism a one-way ticket for a go on the spin machine

Joan Burton – sign on, check in, fly out.

One of the only classes I vividly remember from secondary school was a civics class, when the teacher taught us how to read a newspaper.

Properly. Critically. Without fear or favour.

It is probably the only lesson that I learned in my five years there that I felt was any use – but it’s not a bad one, considering it has enabled me to make a living.

I thought of that this morning when I read the latest Irish Times puff piece backing up Joan Burton and her soft-focus attempt to come across as some sort of benign Irish Thatcher as she cracks down on “welfare tourism.”

In this process she is often aided by journalists and readers who fail to cast a critical eye over her claims that it is welfare recipients, and not her moneyed masters, that represent the greatest threat to Irish society – if they did, she would be instantly revealed to be spinning. Again.

The article is breathless in its promise, giving us a statistic that “one case has been detected every four days.”

It then goes on to produce Burton’s most fantastic, and transparently made-up, claim.

Welfare inspectors at ports and airports discovered 122 cases in the past 18 months, saving the State €1.35m as a result, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said.

Firstly, “discovering” one case every four days is entirely irrelevant, as you’ll soon find out.

And the €1.35 million in savings is based on “estimates (of) future payments the welfare recipients would have received if they were not detected,” according to the Department.

That is to say – in Anglo parlance – that the Department “pulled the figure out of their arse.” They stuck their finger in the air and put 122 cases together, and came up with €1.35 million out of nowhere.

By this point most readers would have headed on over to theJournal.ie to engage in a flurry of comments about ne’er-do-wells too lazy to work.

A shame, because if they read further they’d discover that the 122 cases led to a whopping FIVE prosecutions.

And the concrete, non-pulled-out-of-the-arse figure for money recovered by the state? €54,000, or an average of around €11,000, give or take a claimable ministerial expense.

That can hardly be a sum Burton considers huge, given that she pays her “special adviser” €35,796 (or the tangible equivalent of three fraudulent social welfare claims) as a top-up to the €92,000 they are supposedly restricted to.

(For the record, the bank bailout will arguably end up costing each Irish citizen around €16,500. Maybe Joanie’s cronies would have been better off dispensing with the clipboard and waiting for the Troika with a baseball bat in the arrivals hall instead.)

There is a widespread belief, fostered by successive governments, that Ireland’s real enemies are the handful of crooks (and the fact that there have been only five prosecutions shows it’s truly a handful) that check in, sign on and fly out.

But those doing the real damage are those who fly into Ireland with a laptop bag, not a holdall.

For all their talk about “the most vulnerable,” Joan and the rest of the Labour Party insist on demonising welfare recipients – many of them put in that situation thanks to Burton’s government and its myopic insistence on continuing with their austerity fetish.

Having been constantly cowed, they do what any supplicant does in a corporate culture – kiss upwards and kick downwards. Their journey to the dark side is complete.

But rather than standing at the airport trying to save the odd ten grand (and at what cost?), Joan might spend a day or two at the departure gates this Christmas, apologising to all those forced to leave because of the ineptitude of her, her party and her government.

In Ireland, nothing lies like numbers, but most of the time they can’t even get them right.