Archive for November 22, 2016

Remarks to Social Democrats convention in Dublin

Speaking at the Social Democrats National Convention in Dublin. (Source: @SocDems’ Twitter account)

For the most part I stay out of party politics, but I was honoured to be invited to speak about my experience of 17 years of living, working and travelling in social democratic countries in Scandinavia by Ireland’s Social Democrats, who held their first national congress in Dublin last weekend.

The night before I sat in a hotel room not really knowing what to expect.

Sweden and Scandinavia are often held up as paragons of virtue, and Ireland is often pilloried as being backward, but the truth of both is somewhere in between, and that was something I tried to address in these remarks.

They were not delivered verbatim as written here, mostly because I left my glasses on the table, and indeed one of the most important statements was left out.

That is, that Ireland should learn from not just the successes of social democracy, but perhaps even more so from its failures, and in that way chart its own course to a fairer future for all who live there.

I thank the Social Democrats for inviting me to speak and for giving me the chance to be part of a democratic process that those of us who have emigrated are normally and unapologetically shut out from.

REMARKS TO SOCIAL DEMOCRATS CONVENTION IN DUBLIN, NOV 19 2017

I live in Sweden.

I live in a country where I was welcomed with open arms in 1999 and treated fairly and with humanity, despite having nothing to invest and not being the most attractive person on the labour market until a few years after I arrived.

I live in a country that taught me its language and completed my education at its own expense.

I live in a country which believed in me, and I have repaid that country’s faith by paying my taxes ever since.

I live in a country that fixed my broken arm after playing football on a Saturday evening, and still had me home in time to see Match of the Day

I live in a country that saw people fleeing from war and who were in need, and that took them in and gave them food and shelter – 163,000 of them in one calendar year.

I live in a country where the chairperson of the sports journalists association I am a member of is a woman, and there are many more of them beside me in the press box.

I live in a country where full-time childcare for two children cost me around €220 a month.

I live in a country where I do not worry about my in-laws ageing, or being self-employed and getting sick.

I live in a country with a comprehensive public transport system that runs on time.

I live in a county where I do not worry for the future of my children, and where our hall door in an urban area is unlocked most of the time.

I live in a country where third-level education is free and students can get both grants and loans to help them complete it.

I live in a country where the beer is expensive and tastes horrible, where you can’t get smoked cod and chips and where they have never even heard of a spice bag.

I live in a country which has a terrible shortage of housing as it adopts free-market solutions to the problems of the state.

I live in a country – one of only a handful in the developed world – where it is legal and possible for a private enterprise to make a profit from running a school.

I live in a country that sells weapons to despotic regimes, and that is home to companies who manufacture technologies for those weapons, as well as technologies to prevent refugees from reaching Europe.

I live in a country that has subtly racist structures that builds glass walls around areas such as the one where I live, and that prevent some of my friends and neighbours from advancing and achieving their true potential.

I live in a country that is by no means perfect.

I live in a country that is built on generations of social democratic values, in which everyone is equal, and everyone is taken care of, regardless of the thickness of their wallet or where they went to school

I live in a country that I have lived in for 17 years, but I am not a citizen of that country.

I live in a country that is not my country.

But I long for the day when this country – my country – learns from my current home.

I want this country – my country – to treat my father, my mother, my brothers, my sister, and all my fellow citizens with the dignity and the care that all of us deserve.

I want this country – my country – to recognise the strength that comes from togetherness, from meeting the challenges of life head on, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, and not as individuals all just out for ourselves.

I want this country – my country – to be led by leaders whose first loyalty is to my fellow citizens, and not to themselves or the markets or the shareholders or the lobby groups.

I want this country – my country – to learn from the successes and perhaps even more so from the failures of social democracy.

 

I want this country – my country – to be worthy of my fellow citizens, and to recognise the truth in one of the oldest proverbs of our native language.

 

“Ní neart go chur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Time running out for MMA’s Tipper Gores

I have to say, I find it abhorrent.

Bare-knuckled, talentless thugs fighting it out for supremacy while the crowd, both those in the arena and those who pay for expensive cable subscriptions to see the spectacle, bays for blood?

Nope, ice hockey is not for me.

As a sports journalist I’ve covered two ice hockey world championships and an Olympic final, and interviewed numerous world-class players and officials but, if you’ll pardon the pun, I just can’t warm to it.

But despite my misgivings about the sport, its inherently macho culture evidenced in regular on-ice fights between team “enforcers”, and the undercurrent of performance-enhancing drugs at virtually every level, I do not question its legitimacy, nor do I judge its players or condemn its fans.

I write about it with the same respect I would any sport or any athlete.

I wish the same could be said of the modern-day Tipper Gores who, every time the name of Conor McGregor or the sport of mixed martial arts are mentioned, boom out their contempt for all involved form the highest of vantage points, despite their own admissions that they have no idea what they are talking about.

I mean, think about it – in what other area of sports journalism would ignorance of the subject matter be worn like a badge of honour?

You remember Tipper Gore, right? The busy-body wife of Al Gore who in 1985, before he became vice-president of the USA, demanded that music (in particular rap, hip-hop and hard rock) be censored?

Her legacy is not a world devoid of the evils of rap and heavy metal – in fact, both genres have flourished, with Jay Z now topping many entertainment  rich lists and tours of hard rockers raking in the millions across the world.

Instead, her legacy is one in which t-shirts bearing the imprint “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” are worn ironically, in tribute to the staggering arrogance and stupidity of her and the Parents Music Resource Centre, the gang of worthies she set up to decide what is and what is not acceptable culture.

Luckily music fans simply did not give a shit – much like the MMA fans of today.

Don’t get me wrong – I too find it difficult to watch sometimes.

When Ilir Latifi, a Swede from Rosengård in Malmö, was knocked out in a recent fight, I felt crushed – the few times I’ve met him he has been warm and decent to me, and to see him flying back unconscious was hugely unsettling.

And despite the fact that I rank the epic fight between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald as one of the best I’ve ever seen, I can almost feel MacDonald’s pain at the end as he finally succumbs, his nose a smashed, bloodied mess.

I get the fact that people don’t like it.

I get the fact that people don’t like McGregor.

On many occasions I have stated how I believe his foul mouth and his tendency towards misogyny and racial epithets is extremely troubling (and indeed damaging to his “brand”).

I’m not asking anyone to like it. Or him.

But there are a lot of people who do, and their interests are not being served or indeed taken seriously by many in mainstream media at the moment.

(One well-known Irish commentator actually sought me out in the press room at a soccer game to tell me how much he hated it, and editors regularly feel compelled to condemn the sport to me, even as they order coverage of it.)

The argument is made that criticism of the sport is not about class, and writers point to their own working-class roots as evidence that they cannot be biased.

Once again they are putting themselves at the centre of the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

The truth is that, wherever I go in the world at the moment, young, working-class men are the ones who talk to me most about McGregor and mixed martial arts.

When I asked him a question at last week’s press conference at Madison Square Garden, my phone started buzzing in my pocket even before I reached the end of my sentence.

All young lads, all watching live, all sending me messages, from all corners of the world.

In previous years it might have been Mike Tyson and boxing that were the subject of their affections, but things have changed.

It is not that young, working-class men are the only fans of MMA – it is that they make up a fairly large constituency, and they are the section of society that are roundly and regularly ignored in the media as it is.

That is what is meant by classism and snobbery.

In a week when an Irish athlete made history in Madison Square Garden, I would have expected sports journalists to put aside their personal prejudices and try to hide their ignorance while giving the sport and the subject the respect it – and its fans – deserves.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it is happening.

For the most part I work for very mainstream, respectable media outlets, and the fact that I have covered several UFC events for them this year is a good indication that the crossover is well underway.

Like Tipper Gore, the pearl-clutchers of Irish sports media will soon be left behind, left to celebrate their self-confessed ignorance to an ever-decreasing audience of retweeters and commenters as the rest of the world moves on.

And as has already happened in the USA, MMA fans will eventually enjoy the validation that comes from being featured in the mainstream media, and the sport will likely replace boxing as the number one combat sport.

And the UFC and McGregor?

They’ll continue laughing all the way to the bank regardless of what any of us says, so we better get used to it.

 

 

Immortality awaits McGregor in the Garden, but there are no guarantees

Those who have visited the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave often get a rude awakening on their arrival in New York.

Instead of the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty with her torch raised to welcome them, there is usually a long, winding queue for passport control.

Not so this week as I waltzed through Newark Airport and straight up to gate 49, where a clean-shaven young man inspected my newly-minted passport with both courtesy and studied detachment.

“What is the purpose of your visit, sir?”

“To watch the UFC and the NBA.”

He nodded approvingly.

Fingerprints and photographs taken, he snapped the passport shut.

“You’re all set. Let’s hope our boy wins on Saturday,” he said, his face cracking into a wide smile.

“Our boy” is Conor McGregor, and if the Irish once ruled New York, from the firehouses and the police precincts to City Hall and back, he is claiming it back at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, but the stakes are arguably higher than they ever were in Las Vegas.

Interest in McGregor is at fever pitch, but Eddie Alvarez, whom he faces as he seeks to become the first two-weight champion in the history of the UFC, is no slouch.

McGregor has seemed swept up in the hype this week, his manic behaviour at Thursday’s press conference a perfect example of a man highly strung, so close to achieving his dream, yet still vulnerable to failure.

No customised Rolls Royce or Gucci fur coat could hide the fact that, on Saturday, it will be Reebok shorts, four-ounce gloves and a gate that snaps shut when the moment of truth arrives – and that is all that matters.

If he wins, his legend will be complete, and the much-touted major announcement he has promised after the fight will take on even greater significance.

He will effectively control the UFC for the foreseeable future, reversing the master-and-servant relationship that once saw him beg Dana White for sixty grand; instead, White will be forced to go to McGregor on his knees if he wishes to keep the company steamrollering forward on the back of its most notorious fighter.

Lose, and the questions that were prompted by his defeat to Nate Diaz in March will once again echo around the sport.

Ronda Rousey and others may have done the spadework, but McGregor is undeniably the sport’s biggest truly cross-cultural global icon, but there is a huge risk that, with tens of millions in the bank and a promotion that has little choice but to bend to his demands, that McGregor will find himself surrounded by yes men – and that could signal the beginning of the end.

Those who have known him a long time say he has changed – he has become a brand, a one-man global industry with spin-offs and offshoots, with a bottom line and bills to pay, and expensive tastes to satisfy.

Honed over a decade or more, he knows his craft inside the octagon better than anyone else.

Given his meteoric rise, it would be foolish to assume that his mastery of the outside world – of the business of fighting and celebrity and investing – is at the same level, although the iron control he exerts over his brand and his support staff would suggest he is a fast learner, at least in terms of minimising the risk to himself.

It is unlikely that we will ever again see an open-hearted interview which allows us to see into the soul of the man – instead, we will be treated to staged videos and set-piece interviews where the answers are decided in advance, and are entirely independent of the questions.

He is uncouth and vulgar at times, but McGregor is no fool – he knows that the prospect of getting punched and kicked in the head for a living is not going to be attractive forever, and even at this stage he probably has his exit strategy mapped out.

Whatever that strategy is, it is surely based on the presumption that he will win this iconic fight in this iconic venue on Saturday, cementing his legend and opening up a world of wealth, fame and possibilities, financial and otherwise, beyond even his wildest dreams.

There is talk of movies, a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather and even a brief but lucrative move to professional wrestling and the WWE.

But the difference between the UFC and professional wrestling is a stark one – nothing in the octagon is scripted, and one clean shot could lay waste to whatever plans McGregor may have.

And you can be sure Eddie Alvarez is planning an entirely different ending.