Friday, February 26, 2010

And how could I let this pass?

Rubberbandits: Song for Willie O'Dea

Political awareness

My editorial from yesterday's Cork Indo:

On my way to work yesterday I was listening to Morning Ireland on RTE Radio One; there are so many things happening in the world of politics these days that there’s a genuine danger of blinking and missing another resignation.
The recent wave of resignations in Irish politics has been shocking, and very exciting for those of us who see politics as the next best thing to Eastenders. But I’m not so sure about everyone else.
On radio yesterday morning I listened to a brief debate between Trinity College Politics lecturer Elaine Byrne and RTE Political Correspondent David Davin Power, both of whom I respect immensely.
They spoke of political change, reform of the voting system, a public consultation process where people could give their views on political change. At the end of the discussion, Davin Power made an assertion I found quite striking; “we’re a very politically aware nation”.
Are we?
Granted, everyone was talking about Willie O’Dea last week. Everyone knows who Willie O’Dea is; the funny guy from Limerick with the moustache and the gun. The week before, it was George Lee; the country’s celebrity politician. The Déirdre de Búrca affair only seemed to be on the radar of political hacks; I’d bet money that nobody on the street in Cork would’ve been able to tell me who she was before she resigned.
This week, it’s Trevor Sargent. Again, I think it’s debatable whether most people here in Cork would’ve been able to identify Trevor from a lineup, despite the fact that he used to be leader of the Green Party.
For someone like David Davin Power, who is embedded in political Ireland, to assert that we are a very politically aware nation, tells us something; those inside the culture have no idea what’s going on outside it.
Davin Power spends his days in Leinster House and RTE and not out doing vox pops with people who’d rather discuss the price of petrol, or Cheryl Cole, or how long they had to wait for an appointment with a consultant; those are the things of which most of us are aware.
The vast majority of people in the country don’t give a fiddlers’ about the political system, and those who do tend to see it as a soap, with the fall of Trevor only just behind the fall of Bradley in terms of tragedy and honour.
But what people fail to see – largely because the media fails to highlight it – is that the political system has a very real bearing on how we live and why we live that way. People live in dire poverty and inhuman conditions in Moyross and Finglas because of corrupt planning. Drug dealers get rich off the back of inequality compounded by a cosy cartel of politicians, developers and bankers. Because of today’s bank rescue plans, tomorrow your son or daughter won’t be able to get a job, because there will be no money there to help them through college or support new businesses.
Political reform can only come when the majority of people in this country are prepared to invest some energy in the political system. When people begin to vote and actually think about their vote. When people start to ask what politicians can do for the country, rather than what they can do for them.

A week? An hour is a long time in politics these days


I used to be a happy person in the mornings, chilling out to a bit of Ian Dempsey. These days I'm terrified of missing Morning Ireland in case somebody else resigns.

It seems the Willie O'Dea affair is over; I spent last Friday evening in South's Bar in Limerick chortling every time a national journalist (I counted three, but after a few pints who knows) did the rounds of the barflies for vox pops, in the city's proudest Fianna Fáil pub.

Limerick was a great place to be last Friday, although not if you work in the Limerick Leader; they could hardly get served ("first the bishop, now Willie, what are ye trying to do to us?" was the refrain).

When I say "over", I mean it in two contexts: firstly, Willie is "over" and secondly, the whole perjury/affidavit/investigation is more than likely "over". I doubt very much that the Gardaí will find anything to prosecute or get as far as doing so, and I don't think there is a public appetite. After all, as somebody (my dad, as it happens) pointed out to me, what has the man got to live for now? He has spent his entire life vying for position and now he has been cast out. As for his legendary constituency work, it's going to take a serious hit as he loses his army of civil servants.

Most damning of all of his record, though, was a vox pop last Sunday on Radio One. Most people surveyed (in his home village of Kilteely, Co. Limerick, which he doesn't even represent anymore - it's no longer part of his constituency). Most people were positive towards him, "great man for Limerick" and all the rest, but not one could name one significant thing he had done for the area. One staunch supporter asserted that he was "a great man for a funeral - t'would be great to have a Minister at the funeral of someone belonged to you". Indeed.

The Trevor Sargent resignation was a shock. But you have to respect him for adhering to his principles and resigning without a fuss. It appears to me that it was pure naivete that allowed him to write the letter he wrote, but perhaps it's naivete on my part to think so. The whole issue around the leak seems to be dying down, although I await this Sunday's papers with interest, because if it's going to come out anywhere, it'll be there. The Government press office are doing a great job of spinning the story and making it seem that the scurrilous allegations are being propagated by the Opposition, but I'm not so sure about that.

As for Déirdre de Búrca, she must be feeling pretty ignored. First her resignation is overshadowed by George Lee, then Willie O'Dea, and then her accusations about the DDDA are overshadowed by Trevor Sargent. So much for landing a blow to the Government, but then again, we'll know once the report comes out.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The law? What law?

My editorial from this morning's paper - things move fast in a situation like this and tomorrow we could be seeing the Greens relinquishing spinelessness and making a stand. Hopefully.

We've a funny attitude to the law in this country. Sure, we'll chance it. Last week I wrote about the cavalier attitude of members of the public towards Real IRA threats to murder drug dealers in Cork. Comments on our website indicate that most people still believe they are right to do so.

This week, one Cabinet Minister is taking a miniscule amount of flak for defaming someone, then saying he didn't, then admitting he said it but saying it was a mistake, then saying he'd forgotten he said it.

Another Minister is taking a very large amount of flak for refusing to break the law to allow Michael O'Leary to open his own terminal in Dublin Airport. O'Leary is taking the Government hostage in this issue in order to further the interests of Ryanair, a commercial entity whose sole purpose is to make money.

The media storm surrounding Michael O'Leary's campaign to acquire a terminal for the use of Ryanair in Dublin Airport is nothing short of scandalous. Of the national media, only the Irish Times has reflected on the issue and remained impartial; the others are screaming for Mary Coughlan's head on a plate. While 'Calamity' Coughlan has made plenty of mistakes, this is not one of them.

Dublin Airport Authority is the organisation responsible for dealing with commercial issues around the airport. Not the Tánaiste's Department. If Mary Coughlan did a special favour, like this, for a less skilful media player, she would be pilloried. And now she is being pilloried for not doing it. DAA has entered a contract with Aer Lingus to lease Hangar Six. That is a legally binding agreement. Anybody remember what that means? No? An agreement that even the government can't interfere with.

And O'Leary's campaign is a clever one; everyone hates Coughlan, make her the bad guy in all of this, use a handy emotive issue (jobs) to hang your case on, and nobody will bother investigating.

Tick, another notch on the bedpost of Ryanair and another defeat for Aer Lingus. Which, let's not forget, we still own part of. Who's to say that Ryanair would not provide those jobs in the short term, then dump them in order to set up a less labour-intensive, cost efficient, profitmaking, second terminal? I wouldn't bet my house on it.

The other Minister I refer to is, of course, Willie O'Dea. Mr O'Dea was interviewed by the Limerick Chronicle in advance of the last General Election. He told an untruth in relation to another candidate, Maurice Quinlivan of Sinn Féin, one that would ruin his reputation and his electoral chances, and it was printed.

The defamation case settled out of court. In the course of the case, Minister O'Dea swore an affidavit to the effect that he never uttered such a statement. This was proven to be untrue when a recording of the interview was produced. He admitted that he had 'made a mistake'.

While Mr Quinlivan is satisfied with the outcome of the case, lying on a court document is a matter for the court, not for the plaintiff. Minister O'Dea is a qualified barrister and is aware of the law. And this should have been pursued by the court.

It wasn't, and neither was it pursued by the media. Now, Fine Gael has finally latched onto it but the Green Party, in an amazing show of how spineless it has become, has not taken a stand. Again. One Minister's job being threatened because she refuses to break the law. Another's job perfectly safe even though he did break it. Law? What law?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

So-called Republicans threaten our society

The activities of so-called Republicans in Cork over the last couple of weeks belittle everything that has been done to prevent this country from sliding into civil war and bitterness in the past 50 years. They pour scorn on the efforts of peacemakers, both in Northern Ireland and here in the Republic, and on the grief of the bereaved.
Many people in the Republic simply are not interested in Northern Ireland. But, as I heard a seasoned Northern correspondent point out on the radio recently, what we’ve all forgotten is that these are peoples’ lives we are talking about.
It’s not about committees or satisfying the egos of prima donna politicians; it’s about human life. It’s about children who have lost their fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters. It’s about mothers who have buried their children for no reason other than someone else’s hatred. And it’s about making sure that those crimes – not just against law, but against humanity – are not repeated.
Some people in the Republic are interested. The former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern received universal praise for his work on the North. Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cork TD Micheál Martin is interested in the North, and has spent many days there in recent weeks trying to hammer out a deal on making sure that political parties previously involved in blowing up police officers can now work to help them create a workable, normal justice and policing system. That’s no small task, and while Minister Martin may be the only link to Cork many people can see in the Northern talks, he is not.
The activities of so-called ‘Republicans’ in Cork over the past number of months are troubling, but the lack of public outcry about them is even more worrying.
When the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (which has a blog, on which it posts ‘Beir Buas’ and is allegedly the political wing of the Real IRA) distributed leaflets threatening to murder drug dealers during the summer, there was a bit of a media scuffle. People talked about it for a while, and it died down.
When Gerard ‘Topper’ Staunton was killed in Wilton, there was some disquiet. Gangland-style murders are unusual in Cork. But then it was revealed that he was ‘known to the Gardaí’ and the murmurs died down, and people got on with their lives. You can be sure his family didn’t.
Whatever Mr Staunton’s crimes, we do not have capital punishment in this country; nobody is allowed to take a human life.
The French revolutionary values of Republicanism, from which our Republican movement grew, involved liberty, equality and fraternity. Not one of those words implies that murder, vigilantism and execution are permitted by simply putting the word Republican in the title of whatever organisation or movement you purport to represent.
Fresh threats against drug dealing ‘scumbags’ have been met with a particularly odious type of bravado by many members of the public. Somebody commented on our own website that Mr Staunton ‘got what he deserved’ and web forums have hosted equally stupid and dangerous sentiments expressed by people who have no idea what it would be like to live in a vigilante state.
It is hoped that the Garda investigation into the criminal activities of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement in Cork is productive. And that the people of Cork will see sense and refuse to allow their city and county to be tainted by this evil.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

George Lee - why young, enthusiastic, hard workers cannot survive in Irish politics

After the initial Glee (sorry) of the George Lee resignation debacle died down, I felt myself unaccountably depressed by the whole affair.

Whatever about George's personality, or Enda's, or Fine Gael, or economic committees, the whole thing serves to remind us of one thing: there is no place for young, knowledgeable people who want to change things in Irish politics.

There is no place.

Several of my closest friends are involved in politics. Because most of them are still in their twenties, they are not completely disillusioned, yet.

But by the time any of them get anywhere that they could possibly make a major difference to public life in this country, they will, more than likely, be in their late thirties or forties, they will have families and other priorities, they will have been part of the system for so long that they will be tainted by it.

In some respects I can see it happening already; horse trading with jobs and sucking up to pointless constituency committees purely because they're afraid they will lose the backing of this person or that person who is key to delivering a whole area or group.

None of them entered politics to be rich. They are bright people and could have got rich a lot faster in the private sector (perhaps not right now, but if they put as much work into any private sector job as they do into politics, they would certainly have achieved a lot). There is a certain amount of ego involved, as much as there is in any job involving public recognition.

George Lee could have got rich in the private sector. He trained as a stockbroker and took a massive salary drop to join RTE (as a lowly reporter to begin with, don't forget). I heard him speak at a media conference a number of years ago and genuinely found him inspiring. He left a cushy job in a bank making pots of money to go into journalism, where, he thought, his plain speaking and ability to translate the jargon could help educate people. At the time he said the property bubble would be the biggest crime of the Fianna Fáil government. Cassandra-like, he had it spot on.

He left his, by then also cushy, job in RTE, to further that aim yet again; he wanted, not just to show people what was going wrong, but to help fix it. Very admirable. And few people with the ability to do this get that opportunity, so he was lucky.

But the system crushed him. Watching Frontline last night, the contribution of Elaine Byrne, a politics lecturer in TCD, was the one that said most; it was the system that failed here. It's not about George's personality, although he could have waited a little longer and tried to make a bit more noise. In any political system politicians are required to 'play politics'; he should've stood up for himself. But ultimately he still would not have got what he wanted; to really contribute.

The system has failed many young, dynamic people who want to contribute to this country, to its people, and to making life better in a genuine way. Our politicians spend so much time, in good faith, sorting out medical cards and school places and jobseekers' payments on an individual basis for thousands of people, that they have no time or inclination to create a macro system where politicians made policy and the social welfare system and justice system implemented it, without a word in its ear or a phone call from the right person.

The voters are partly to blame for this; clever people vote for the TD they know purely because they know him. Because he wrote back to the request for funding or to the complaint about the pothole or the medical card or whatever. And because he seems like a nice guy.

But I would rather have a socially inept, tactless, ugly person (which George Lee is not, by the way) who knows how to run an economy running my country than a smooth, glib, chatty hunk who knows f*** all about anything appearing at my funeral and doing precious little else.

And while the current system continues to operate the way it does, unfortunately I'm more likely to get a stunning media player than a statesman.

As for my friends - I really admire them for being in it for the long haul. I admire their dedication, the slog they put in, the constant ego massaging and power playing they are doing with the ultimate aim of getting somewhere that will let them make a difference. But I think, by the time they get there they will be so tired from the struggle that they will have forgotten why they were there in the first place.