The Dithering 2013 – opportunity knocks and no-one answers

Enda Kenny, flanked by some of the Swedish fans and investors that now won’t bother coming to Dublin.

The moment the draw for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers was made, I did a little dance.

Sweden were drawn against Ireland, and we couldn’t lose – off the pitch at least.

How wrong I was.

For me, the draw meant not just that I would be guaranteed plenty of sports journalism work over the year-and-a-half of qualifying – it meant that we would have a brilliant chance to market Ireland in a non-Euro economy.

We would face Sweden in Stockholm in March, with the return leg in Dublin in September. If ever there was an open goal in terms of marketing Ireland, this was it.

Sweden, as we know, didn’t join the single currency, and as such it still enjoys relative stability despite the basket case that the global economy has become.

Ireland’s state agencies market our products and services here admirably, but two World Cup qualifiers between what were the two best sets of fans at the Euros represented a love-bombing opportunity that couldn’t be missed.

And we missed it.

I wrote to minister Michael Ring on August 13 2012 to suggest making an extra effort – to perhaps organise some special events or otherwise plan to make the most of this unique opportunity.

I mentioned the potential for tourism and commercial travellers, and for bringing Irish and Swedish businesses together to explore opportunities.

Swedish fans enjoy the hospitality – and spend their money – in Kiev at Euro 2012

As I saw in Kiev last year, Swedish soccer fans are great tourists. They love beer and craic and they spend money.

Their business people are even better – eager to invest, they recognise a good opportunity when they see one. They also have the kind of hi-tech society and economy we would kill for.

The e-mail to minister Ring contained very specific ideas for what could be done to exploit the opportunity provided by these games – the first competitive games between Ireland and Sweden for the best part of two generations.

The more I wrote, the more excited I got.

He must have missed it, because I got no response.

I wrote again on August 30, and a member of staff acknowledged receipt of my e-mail.

Then nothing happened. Again.

On October 31 I chased it up.

On November 16 I was informed that the minister said to tell me that Tourism Ireland were the body responsible for marketing Ireland abroad, and that he had heard I was already in contact with them.

In fairness, I was already aware of all that.

There was no mention of the other ideas to put together Irish businesses with Swedish investors, no mention of the other ideas contained in the mail. No offer of support.

Perhaps fittingly for a minister whose portfolio covers sport, the e-mail was a kick to touch.

A call to the minister’s office suggested that I contact minister Richard Bruton instead, as this might be more up his street. So I did.

(I also mentioned it in person to minister Lucinda Creighton when we borth appeared on Marian Finucane’s radio show, and to minister Joan Burton when she came to Stockholm to launch the Gathering).

I wasn’t going to contact Bruton, even though my family lives in his constituency and I know him to be a decent man.

The wheels of Irish bureaucracy turn extremely slowly, and I sincerely doubted his department was going to spring into gear, no matter how decent he is.

But then again, I have to practice what I preach – I cannot ask others to do their best to promote Irish business and keep it on the agenda if I’m not prepared to send a simple e-mail myself.

So I took a deep breath and contacted both his constituency office and his ministerial office, and waited for the surprise that would never come.

I got the standard acknowledgement on November 19, and then what I had come to expect. Silence.

Christmas came and went. So did New Year.

Then on January 10 I received an e-mail saying the following:

The Minister has noted the comments made, and has recommended that your email be relayed to the Irish Embassy in Stockholm for advice. Accordingly, I am cc’ing this email to the Office of Mr Eamonn Gilmore T.D., Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, for attention and direct reply to you.

Time is running out, and all I got was another kick to touch.

The Irish community here isn’t huge, so the embassy here already knows all about me and these ideas. It also deserves great credit for doing a brilliant job with virtually nothing.

But they don’t have the resources to help pull off such a comprehensive effort, which was the whole reason for contacting ministers directly.

So instead of our dynamic, youthful, jobs-obsessed government leaping into action, nothing happened.

There are now a little more than two months to go the Sweden – Ireland game in Stockholm, and whatever chance we had of organising anything meaningful to promote Irish business during these two unique games is now gone.

Readers may say I have no right to expect anything of anyone in this situation, but I disagree, and here’s why:

Last February, Simon Coveney invited me in to his office, where he thanked me and the Swedish-Irish community for our efforts and our patriotism.

He also said not to hesitate to contact the various ministers if we thought we could do anything to help promote Ireland abroad.

We did, and nothing happened.

The question remains – why was no effort made to even gauge the scale of what could be done against the backdrop of the soccer games?

I can’t find any other explanation for this wonderful episode (which I have now dubbed “The Dithering”), so my guess is money.

Namely, the Irish government doesn’t have any, and what little it has is not going to be spent doing something daft like making a cross-functional effort to promote Ireland abroad.

Sure we already have the Gathering and Arthur’s Day, what more do we need?

And maybe they’re right. Sweden as a market is probably being seen as insignificant compared to say, China or the US.

But are the tourism euros of 5000 Swedish football fans worth any less?

Are the euros of Swedish investors looking for projects worth any less?

Are the jobs that could be created by those euros worth any less?


As a result of austerity, what Ireland now has is a one-size-fits-no-one economic and marketing policy.

There is no room for anything different. There is no room for deviation.

There is a simple, grim realisation that being different or deviating from what is already prescribed is neither desirable nor possible.

It goes against all I ever learned about sales and marketing – about taking the easy deals (the so-called “low-hanging fruit”), about exploiting the opportunities fate dumps in your lap.

At a time (March 17-22) when Ireland is never going to have a greater media profile in Sweden, our collective government answer is to do nothing.

I don’t think that’s good enough.

There is a happy ending to all this, of course.

Despite the disappointment, the Irish community in Sweden will no doubt continue to wear its green jersey, both figuratively and literally.

We will continue to promote Ireland as a tourist destination (including to Swedish soccer fans), as a place to do business, as a country of wonderful culture and people and sport.

We will continue our efforts to organise as many events as possible as part of the Gathering, and for any other initiative you care to mention.

But the next time a minister calls on us to show our loyalty and patriotism, he or she may well be ignored.

Because patriotism is something for us all, and loyalty is a two-way street.




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.

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?


Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out

Life is a bed of roses for Labour leader

A few months ago it actually seemed possible. In the middle of Garglegate and the attendant witch hunt, it was whispered and then said out loud- Eamon Gilmore could be Taoiseach.

Those sporting blue shirts under their canvassing macs now openly mock the notion, but for a brief, fleeting moment Ireland was on the cusp of becoming a modern democracy.

Instead of being defined by what side they took in the Civil War, parties would now nail their colours to more traditional masts of right and left.

But what began with a socialist bang has now gone out with a whimper, and Labour only have themselves to blame. Their decline in the polls is hardly down to the political skill and charisma of the likes of Enda Kenny and Mícheál Martin – they have none.

Labour’s ills are very much of their own making, and they were made at the very top. When Enda Kenny was bunkering down and staying out of the limelight, Gilmore and Joan Burton were turning on the righteous anger- and the Irish people immediately turned off.

Though wonderfully hospitable and generous neighbours, Irish people are not natural socialists. Eight hundred years of occupation means that a dislike of and contempt for government is inbuilt in our DNA, and voting for bigger government goes against their nature. For most Irish people, casting a vote for Labour is like political chemotherapy – it might get rid of the cancer, but it’s still not something to look forward to.

At this point in time, the Irish electorate don’t want righteous anger- they have enough of that themselves. What they want is leadership, not the pointless political posturing Labour pursued.

Burton’s bizarre performance on Vincent Browne when she attacked all round her gave birth to the Moan Burton tag, and simultaneously put paid to her ambition to be finance minister.

And as for Gilmore’s righteous anger, that is long gone and he is now reduced to begging the electorate for transfers to shoehorn Fine Gael into a coalition they do not want. The man who would be Taoiseach may now end up outside government altogether, splitting the leadership of the opposition with Gerry Adams as Míchael Martin looks on enviously from the back benches.

There will of course be no shame in that for Martin- he was given an impossible job, and having any TDs at all in the next Dáil wil be a triumph for him. Nor does he seem like the sort to be ashamed of anything anyway.

Not so for Gilmore and Burton, who will be looking wistfully across the chamber at the government benches and wondering what might have been if they had taken the age-old saying to heart- better to keep your mouth shut and have everyone think you’re an idiot than to open it and confirm their suspicions.

Gloves Come Off For TV Debate

Seconds out, round one...

As the contestants prepare for the debate which is due to begin in about an hour, you can be sure that someone, somewhere will be playing the Rocky music to psyche themselves up. My money is on Mícheál Martin, but it could just as easily be Enda “the Empty Chair” Kenny. Much of the rhetoric will be about struggles and battles, and at least one paper will go with the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” headline, no matter what the outcome.

When it comes to public speaking, one of the best I’ve ever seen was not a politician but a boxer. Dubliner Steve Collins was super-middleweight champion of the world in an era when super-middleweight was about the toughest division in boxing. I brought him to Canary Wharf in London to talk to a sales team who were spread out around the world, all working alone trying to create new business. The Celtic Warrior wasn’t polished, but to this day those who listened to him still talk about him, and for a public speaker there is no finer accolade.

Collins spoke about life in the ring, and the tactics he’d use to get an opponent to break his rhythm. He’d mimic his opponent’s movement, his footwork and head fakes, and choose his moment carefully. When the time came, he’d throw in a little nod of his own- if the opponent followed he was on the hook, and a couple of seconds later he would be on the floor. Boxers call this tactic “lead and pace”, and anyone tuning in to RTE tonight will see plenty of it.

Collins also had a memorable response to a question about how he dealt with the thousands of blows aimed at him. “In my line of business, you’re not going to last very long if you keep letting people hit you in the f**ckin’ head,” he said gruffly. He reckoned in his entire professional career, he’d only really been hit maybe two dozen times, or less than once for every professional bout he undertook. Boxing is about power, but it is also about concentration and control, and Collins had the nous and the discipline to know that and keep a cool head, even when the other guy was trying to knock it clean off his shoulders.

Expect to see the others lead and pace Kenny into trouble. He’s quite an arrogant man and won’t like to be shown up, so Martin and the others will try to make him appear arrogant and lose his temper- if he does, he’s done for and won’t last six months in office.

Martin will ride the blows- he hasn’t lasted this long in politics by standing still, and his abdication of responsibility for the last fourteen years shows him to be quick on his feet.

But the one with most to lose tonight is Eamon Gilmore. A good performance on The Week In Politics last night has thrown him a lifeline, but if he turns on the indignation as he has at recent press conferences he’ll seem boorish and petty. If he can take the moral high ground and refrain from personal attacks when defending his tax policies he’ll be fine. If he can’t he’ll be on the ropes from the get-go.

As David McWilliams pointed out this morning, the debates are a sideshow and won’t tell us anything that will be of any use; like professional boxing, money now steers everything and what happens in the ring is almost secondary.

But as the country fights for its future, it may well offer some pointers as to who we have in our corner, and how they’re going to help us fight back.