Why I won’t be watching the #GE16 Leaders Debate

The Irish people: Lions led by (these) donkeys

For years I have commented on political communication in Ireland, as well as campaigning for the right of Irish emigrants to vote.

But having watched the “Leaders Debate” on TV3 I’m not sure a vote would be anything to have anymore, and frankly another debate is about as much use to me as an ashtray on a motorbike.

The “debate” on TV3, such as it was, was awful, undignified tripe, consisting of a herd of empty-headed braying donkeys struggling to make their soundbytes heard in an echo chamber of rampant egotism.

You had Gerry Adams pontificating about the great and the good, as if he had never heard of the generation of murder and misery that happened on his watch in Northern Ireland.

You had Joan Burton, whose only political achievement of note is reneging on every promise her party made since the last election (including the cutting of base rates of social welfare, which for some reason Labour still deny, despit the slashing of benefits to young people, driving them out of the country).

You had Micheál Martin, the incumbent Ard Rí of the Party of Spivs (or, as Gaeilge, Fianna Fáil), conveniently forgetting that all the things he was criticising the current administration for were caused by the fact that he and his cronies utterly destroyed Ireland as they buried their noses ever-deeper in the trough.

And then you had the top banana, the laughably inept Enda “Hide and Seek Champion of Mayo” Kenny, the man who is Taoiseach when it simply doesn’t matter who “leads” Ireland.

There is little to suggest that the RTE version will be any different.

It is often said that one canvasses in poetry and governs in prose, but not these morons – they canvass in soundbytes tested on focus groups and then govern in whatever way they are told by their betters in business, the banks and the EU.

Tonight’s debate will add another few hardy bucks to the mix, including Lucinda Creighton of right-wing crackpot outfit Renua, and Stephen Donnelly, a man of admittedly impressive intellect but also a possessor of principles (such as his broad acceptance of TTIP) which would be anathema to other Social Democratic parties that sprang from the workers movements.

But at the end of the day, principles do not matter in Irish politics.

All that matters is power.

If you want to know about the parties, by all means read their manifestos, but in doing so please be aware that, in Ireland, your vote only elects a parliament, not a government.

Literally everything that is said and written between now and when you cast your ballot has no value, as once the count is in all bets are off and the jockeying for position in the next junta begins.

And no matter what they say now, everyone is open to governing with everyone else, because all that matters in Ireland is being at the top table, however briefly, and maximising the return for yourself and your mates once it is achieved.


For your betters, brow-beating beats being there

“I threw a brick through a window…”

Today the column inches will stretch to feet, yards, miles – infinitely longer than a single water balloon or brick can fly. The airwaves will crackle.

There will be news, there will be comment, there will be analysis on the collapse of democracy that occurred at the anti-water charge protest that hindered Joan Burton’s car in Jobstown at the weekend.

Despite their fleeting appearances, the brick and the water balloon will feature heavily.

Just one question to all of those breathless hacks painting dark pictures of the End of Days, caused by a violent mob of working and non-working class people in a Dublin suburb.

How many of you were actually there?

Because if you’re going to pontificate about the death of Irish democracy for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of readers or listeners, then I expect you to have dropped everything and headed for Jobstown.

It’s not that hard to find. There are busses, and failing that the taxi company on your speed dial will take you there swiftly.

But such is the laziness and insular nature of the long-distance columnist that it is easier to make pious declarations about democracy from a safe distance rather than take the risk of talking to people for whom “th” in any word is an optional extra.

In truth, there is no need for any journalistic foundation to a column about certain areas of the country – after all, what are they going to do? Complain?

But for me the front line is the only place to start.

Because if I see a man throwing a brick, my instinct is not to ascribe a motive to him, or to find out what a well-to-do person in Dublin 6 thinks.

My instinct is to ask him why.

Then my instinct would be to find out if he is representative of the greater mass of people.

And my instinct is, in this case, that he wasn’t.

If I was in Jobstown, the ultimate journalistic bounty that day would have been an interview with the brick-thrower – after all, who better to explain his actions than the man himself?

I’d ask him how he felt.

I’d ask him what he thought of the fact that his brick was likely to do more damage to the peaceful protestors than it ever was to the Garda car he aimed at.

I’d ask him if his slip as he made his getaway was a fitting metaphor for something else.

But based on his actions, the instinct of virtually everyone else in Irish media this weekend seems to have been to scream “MOB!!” and write long, pretentious articles about democracy that are completely without any sense of nuance, understanding or first-hand experience of the situation.

But that’s OK, because what are they going to do? Complain?

Write a letter to the editor that will never be published?

Call the radio show that screens out exactly the prevalent accent used in that part of the city?

During the riots here in Stockholm last year, more people were injured in the rush to condemn the violence than were ever in danger from the riots themselves.

Such condemnation serves nothing but the ego of the politician or journalist already well-served by the democracy they claim to be upholding – the one that depends on the votes and the purchases of working-class people, and then abandons them as soon as power is secured.

The kind of people who live in places like Jobstown, Neilstown, Coolock, Ballymun and Darndale.

The kind of people who voted for Joan Burton – who sat in that car – and then saw her completely betray the mandate they had given her.

If you want a real story about the collapse of democracy, it was sitting in the car, not rocking it or shouting at it.

That story is how an unelected four-person “economic management council” has, with the support and full active participation of Labour, set aside Ireland’s parliamentary democracy until further notice.

No, the only thing that ran riot in Dublin yesterday was the middle-class sensibilities of journalists and politicians confronted by the dawning realisation that it is too late, and the proles have had enough.

For the hacks, there is no point back-pedalling now.

So do not start with your own answers and then tailor the facts to fit, as currently seems to be best practice at the Irish Water Meter and on Water Meter FM.

Instead, put aside your pointless pontificating, go back to your basic journalistic training and ask the five Ws and one H that we all learned on our first day in class.

And of all those questions you should be asking, right now “why?” is the most important.

And from what I’ve seen in this morning’s papers and online, not one of you has asked it yet.

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.


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.




Dads can be winners in downturn

UPDATE: This pieces has now been published on thejournal.ie – thanks to Susan Daly for her quick response and desire to facilitate the debate.

I spent almost two weeks trying to get an Irish newspaper to publish the following article.

One considered it, but eventually declined.

None of the rest bothered to respond.

In the meantime, the subjects of parenting and getting people back to work have been widely discussed, yet only one editor saw fit to even acknowledge receipt.

It is presented here unedited. 

Dads can be winners in downturn

There are few silver linings to be found in the most savage recession in modern times, but if we’re creative about it we might be able to wring something golden from the misery for Irish families.

One such way would be to take the opportunity to give fathers the chance to spend more time with their children by introducing a comprehensive reform of parental leave in Ireland.

Living in Sweden, I was lucky enough to spend a total of ten months at home with my two daughters, and I can safely say it was the best thing I’ve ever done. During that time I received around 90% of my usual salary (80% from the state, topped up by 10% by my employer).

Under current circumstances there is no way that the Irish government or businesses could afford to mirror the generous Swedish system and give parents 480 days to split between them.

But what could be offered to fathers is the opportunity to take 60 or 90 days parental leave, to be replaced at work by someone on the live register.

The obvious benefits to families are twofold – more men would experience what it is like to spend more time with their children, developing strong bonds with them and taking a more active role in the formative years of their children’s lives.

For other families it would mean the chance for someone to get back into the workplace, even temporarily, to show what they can do and keep their skills sharp.

How payment is handled is a matter for government, employers and employees to work out, but there are a few obvious possibilities.

The person on parental leave could have their salary reduced somewhat, with the difference added to the unemployment benefit paid to the person who would be replacing them.

Any shortfall in income for the person on parental leave would be offset to some extent by a reduction in childcare costs during the period, thus rendering an effect that is close to neutral as possible on the household budget.

The effect for the unemployed person taking up the temporary role should not be underestimated either – in fact, I got my first real break in the Swedish job market when I did maternity cover for a girl having her first baby.

When given the chance, I worked as hard as I could to show what I could do, and when she returned I was kept on too – but if she had never had children I never would have had that chance.

There would doubtless be a disruptive effect on businesses in the beginning as they sought to deal with a new system; there are key employees that are essential to the running of many organisations.

But that too is a sign of weakness, and businesses need to learn to cope and become more resilient in case that person should become ill or find a new job.

Ultimately it is the benefit to the child that is most important., and the fact that they have a right to both parents.

For the most part, children love their parents unconditionally, if not always equally. Such a reform of the system would represent the first step in redressing that imbalance.

Is that a foot in your mouth, or are you just glad to see me?

"What Michael REALLY meant was that everything is the fault of the poor and they only have themselves to blame...""

I love Irish politicians.

Just when I start to think that they might actually be capable of doing something intelligent, they invariably make a total mess of it.

But just as predictable is the faux outrage when they say or do something as remarkably tactless as Michael Noonan did today.

After over a year of austerity and and a general election it should be no surprise to people that he believes that emigration is a lifestyle choice.

He can’t afford to believe anything else.

Why else would he preside over slash-and-burn budgets and the wanton destruction of social services?

Why else would he introduce a finance act that will cost workers an inordinate amount with little hope of creating any jobs?

Why else would he keep tugging his metaphorical forelock as the IMF and the ECB told him how great we all are, that, in Brian Lenihan’s memorable fallacy “our plan is working”?

Their plan might be working, but much of Ireland isn’t, and the wave of emigration is testament to that.

I went on Pat Kenny’s Frontline program just before Christmas determined to give a positive view of the life of the emigrant – after almost 13 years abroad I can safely say it’s not a death sentence.

But all the while I was sitting in the TV studio with my collar buttoned up, I was aware of the enormous hurt and loneliness and pain that emigration causes, and there was no way in the world I would have said anything to try to lessen them.

Emigration is immensely painful for most people. If you don’t believe me, hang around an Irish airport some morning and see for yourself.

You’ll see fathers commuting off to God knows where in search of a week’s work.

You’ll see young people with packed bags and empty eyes heading off to places they know little about.

You’ll see the tired 40-year-olds who thought their travelling days were done, once again heading off with 10 kilos of hand luggage and the e-mail address of an old friend in Berlin.

You’ll see it in my inbox every week as people write looking for advice on jobs and apartments and childcare as they abandon any hope they might have had of raising their family in their own country.

What you won’t see is the likes of Noonan, a life of political privilege having inured him from the harsh realities he and his ilk regularly foist upon the nation.

It seems like a trivial thing, but maybe not.

Maybe this piece of sublime stupidity will be the straw that breaks the back of the Irish camel.

Despite the fact that we went into this government and its contemptuous policy of cuts and austerity with our eyes wide open, we might finally choose to exercise our democratic rights.

Maybe this insult will help people to find their voice, to get up out of their armchairs and say no more.

Or maybe we’ll just keep heading to the airport and leaving the likes of Noonan to do their best to sort it out. Here’s hoping he won’t have the chance.

At the very least, Noonan has to go and be replaced by Joan Burton. The sooner we force an end to this charade the better.

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.